Migrant labor is a part of America’s connective tissue.
By Barrington Salmon
On April 12, 1946, my father, Stephen Lloyd, sailed from Kingston, Jamaica, to the United States aboard the SS Marine Marlin, according to records I found at the National Archives. This was his second trip to America to work as a migrant laborer.
Dad, a master carpenter, lived in Kingston. He and my mom recalled how tough life was in Jamaica for Black people under British colonial rule. Mom was a seamstress but the combined carpenter-seamstress wages never stretched nearly far enough. Opportunities for my parents to make a livable wage or better was limited by the color of their skin, their working-class status, and the fact that not having been born in a prominent family meant the absence of power or influence.
A chance encounter with an American man in Kingston in 1943 while my father was working on a construction project in Kingston led to this opportunity. Traveling abroad was something most Jamaicans would have given an arm or a leg for. Despite the harsh conditions and exhausting work, Dad said, the promise of better wages — bringing home at least 10 times more weekly than he did working in Jamaica — was a seductive lure.
Beginning in 1944, my dad, who was 25, cut sugarcane by hand in West Palm Beach and Immokalee in South Florida and moved from farm to farm in other parts of the segregated South and across the U.S. to pick fruits and vegetables and perform other migrant-related labor. He talked about men living stacked on top of each other in shacks, cane cutters mistakenly cutting off their limbs and having to fight to make sure they wouldn’t be robbed by their bosses.
Dad worked as a migrant laborer in America until 1950, when he and my mother emigrated to London — still in search of a better life — to help rebuild parts of Britain after the devastation of World War II.
Immigration Proposals in Congress Have Died on the Vine
Migrant labor is a part of America’s connective tissue. It has always been a pivotal component of America’s agricultural system. Farmers acknowledge that they wouldn’t be able to harvest all their crops without the legions of low-paid men, women, and children they hired to do the excruciating, back-breaking work.
Then as now, the United States has depended heavily on migrant men women and children to raise their children, cut their lawns, clean their pools, cook their food, clean their houses, harvest their fruits and vegetables, work in their meat processing plants, and perform tasks that most Americans are loath to do.
For more than 20 years, comprehensive immigration proposals in Congress have died on the vine, with both parties unwilling or unable to agree on a path to citizenship for the country’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. But the issue has never been so intractable, so problematic that there are no solutions.
Immigration is scalding hot, a deeply polarizing issue that has bubbled over the proverbial pot particularly since former President Donald Trump came into office in 2016.
As the number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States has ebbed and flowed, MAGA Republicans and Christian nationalists have used that as a cudgel to terrify its base.
Republican governors have been busy stirring the pot. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and Arizona Govs. Doug Ducey and his successor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, have bused and flown asylum seekers from their states. Axios reports that under Hobbs, the state has transported 26,513 asylum seekers since taking office in January, her administration said at a cost to the state of about $5.7 million.
Meanwhile, Ducey transported more than 3,000 asylum seekers from Yuma to Washington, D.C., through the beginning of January when his term ended.
The governors have been loading undocumented immigrants onto buses and airplanes and dropping them off in sanctuary/Democratic cities including Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago. In September 2022, DeSantis flew 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, on flights arranged by the governor’s office.
In May 2023, DeSantis signed into law sweeping anti-immigration legislation that prohibits anyone from transporting illegal immigrants into the state. Among other restrictions, the law imposes penalties on Florida businesses that hire undocumented immigrants and requires a citizenship question on patient forms for hospitals that accept Medicaid. Under the law, Florida no longer recognizes drivers’ licenses issued to undocumented immigrants from other states.
It’s a story that’s grown all too common for a state economy that’s highly reliant on migrant workers for its tourism, agriculture, and construction industries.
“Even a lot of Republican business owners are worried and complaining about this law because they view it as unnecessary and disruptive,” former Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo told NPR from a recent National Association of Hispanic Journalism conference in Miami.
Immigrants Contribute Billions of Dollars in Taxes
Immigration experts and other observers say they expect this new law to have “far-reaching health and other impacts on immigrant families, beyond the undocumented immigrants it targets.”
There are about 775,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida. According to the American Immigration Council, more than one in five Florida residents is an immigrant, while one in eight residents (more than 909,000) people are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent.
Despite being scapegoated by DeSantis, immigrants in Florida have contributed tens of billions of dollars in taxes. For example, immigrant-led households in the state paid $23.2 billion in federal taxes and $8.5 billion in state and local taxes in 2018.
In addition, in 2018, undocumented immigrants in Floridapaid an estimated $1.3 billion in federal taxes and $588.3 million in state and local taxes. And DACA recipients and DACA-eligible people living in Florida paid an estimated $77.6 million in state and local taxes in 2018.
Meanwhile in Texas, Abbott has been battling with the Biden administration over control of parts of the Rio Grande River. He had barbed wire placed along the U.S. side of the river, which caused migrants to drown. In recent days he has become embroiled in an incident where U.S. border officials accuse Texas National Guardsmen of not helping a mother and her two children who encountered difficulty while trying to cross the Rio Grande. Sadly, they drowned.
This cruelty and callousness is not at all necessary but it reflects the nature of MAGA Republicans and their allies who view asylum seekers as less than human.
Immigration has taken center stage in the 2024 presidential election but while both political parties and their surrogates squabble over it, those most affected are left to twist in the wind.
Patrice Lawrence, executive director of UndocuBlack Network, said in an op-ed she wrote in 2021 that she has suffered the consequences of U.S. immigration failures.
“Despite coming to the United States more than 10 years ago, I have no real pathway to citizenship. I provide policy advice to Senate leaders, yet I could not legally drive myself to those meetings until a few years ago,” she said. “On a more human level, I am denied the opportunity to care for loved ones, enjoy the company and counsel of my parents, or celebrate the companionship of friends. I was even denied the chance to meet with the first African American and female vice president. These milestones bring unbearable pain.”
Lawrence said the lack of political will by Congress and the Biden administration has made a path to citizenship rockier than ever. With immigration being used as a political cudgel by Republicans and the Democratic Party mounting a weak defense and promising but falling far short of following through, undocumented immigrants — especially Black migrants — have few safety nets.
Sadly, the conditions my father and countless millions endured in the 1940s and now as migrant laborers, undocumented immigrants, and asylum seekers have not changed in a significant manner. And human beings coming to the U.S. seeking a better life are left to carry the mental and emotional anguish and trauma.
Those standing on the frontlines and others fighting for equality and justice say Americans should do more, but will they? Can they?
Originally published by Florida Phoenix, 01.19.2024, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.