On migrant workers in Maryland

 Just past midnight on a Saturday morning twenty-eight year old Melva Guadalupe Vázquez of Ciudad del Maíz, México wakes up to her phone alarm in a cramped bedroom she shares with five other women in Woolford, Maryland on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. She puts on her work uniform, which despite washing still reeks of crabs, and heads out into the darkness to walk a quarter-mile to Lindy’s Seafood, where the graveyard shift is due to begin at 2 a.m. A half hour later she is part of a team of a dozen women on the picking line as crabs are wheeled in on a huge dolly and put in piles on a long, stainless steel table. Vázquez puts on her fingerless blue gloves, picks up a crab and cracks the shell. She then quickly maneuvers her two small knives to extract the meat and puts it into a small plastic container labeled #9. A supervisor will record how much she has produced during the shift, so she works fast, deshelling roughly two crabs per minute. No one speaks while working. Spanish music plays on one of the women's iPhone. Most of them spend the time thinking of their children back home. At 7 a.m. Vázquez takes an hour for lunch, when she puts a Band-Aid on a self-inflicted cut to a finger on her right hand, which burns painfully from the salt. She works another 4 hours for a total of 10 -- there are a lot of crabs to process that day. Now it’s 1 p.m., and exhausted she walks back home in the bright midday sun. She is looking forward to tomorrow, Sunday, the one day she usually gets off, when she plans to attend church and do grocery shopping.

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     Like the Jim Crow laws of the 19th century that enforced racial segregation in the U.S., there are ways in which our modern day temporary immigrant visa system resembles the historical institution of slavery. There are differences of course. Workers come to America of their own free will, and they are in principle afforded equal protection under the law, both in the workplace and as visitors to our country. For instance, they are entitled to enroll in the ACA if they choose while they are here. However, they are effectively segregated from the general population and take up the kind of low-paying, manual labor that occurs out of the sight and mind of most people. They are also subjected to not-so-subtle forms of racial discrimination that is inspired these days directly from Washington. “A lot of the Hispanic people are afraid of going to certain stores because there are some people who look at them disapprovingly,” said Margarita Marquez, an outreach worker. “But they know how to avoid those situations.”

 

     Over the past four years the Trump administration has painted a consistently black and white, absurdly demonizing portrait of immigrants, particularly Mexicans, as degenerate criminals and rapists threatening American society at home and amassing at our borders, poised to take jobs and good fortune away from the average flag-waving Joe. The ideology is dead wrong and leads to miserable, unfair relations with our immigrant population. On the contrary, immigration is a complex issue, which demands nothing less than rational, compassionate consideration from citizens and legislators alike. The full picture regarding immigration in any nation should fairly encompass all the nuances of the host and the needs of a diverse set of emigres seeking entry for various reasons, from desiring temporary work to full blown political asylum. As is common in any serious debate, for every reasonable argument in favor of a position, there tends to be a valid counter argument -- up to a point. Logic is not everything in human affairs; sympathy and compassion should be given equal weight. That is, every controversial socio-political-economic position in the end should be subjected to a common sense ethical standard and moreover grounded in a valid, generally accepted set of facts (which in today's bifurcated political environment is easier said than done). We're in a crisis at the moment, because the distinction between fact and falsehood is being deliberately blurred for political ends. Not only must we do a better job respecting the facts (immigrants are not taking away jobs Americans want), but we should abide by the Christian golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

     Above all, in the end, the freedom and welfare of ordinary human beings, at home and abroad, must necessarily be insulated from the cheap political rhetoric that is meant to arouse nationalist, xenophobic and racist sentiments for political gain. In particular, it is so difficult right now in America to settle any argument concerning immigration at the local, state or national level that meets the overall needs and concerns of the majority, because the issue is so polluted out of the gate by political dogma of the most offensive kind issuing from Donald Trump’s incessant Twitter bully pulpit. The latest threat from Washington to invade sanctuary cities with the military arm of ICE follows right on the heels of a heartless, criminal policy of separating immigrant children from their families. The president has moreover insisted that we must build a wall and that he might shut down the border with Mexico altogether, particularly now that we are combating the Coronavirus, a pandemic that the administration will likely try to convert into a win for America first nationalism.

     We need to get beyond the Trump administration’s absurd racist policy and consider the human side of the issue, namely the perspective of the refugee, the concerns of the underdog. We must try to imagine what it is like being in the shoes of these struggling people, fleeing poverty and/or civil strife in their native countries to seek refuge in America, or doing more or less the same holding temporary visas in order to sustain the lives of their children and families back home. We should respect these poor, hard-working people as we do our own workers and afford them the wages, dignity and civil rights that we take for granted ourselves; instead the current government encourages us to treat them with contempt like the invisible slaves of our colonial past. These immigrants do the hard, subsistence work that almost no Americans want to do themselves in a relatively healthy economy, such as agricultural, food processing, landscaping, construction, housekeeping and amusement park labor.

     A good example of this troubling international crisis exists right here in Maryland’s eastern shore; crab meat processing plant workers, all women and mostly mothers, who travel here for stints of up to eight months at a time from central Mexico under the government’s H-2B visa program. In September of 2019 The Baltimore Sun ran an exceptional article with an accompanying short video documentary on the situation. The piece was in contrast to most of the other recent news stories on the topic, which have focused mainly on the difficulty of crab processing industry owners in recent years to garner sufficient cheap labor south of the border, despite logging consistent annual profits in the tens of millions of dollars. (see: ‘I’m not here to take anyone’s job’: Mexican crab pickers quietly work in Maryland as immigration debate rages https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-crab-pickers-20190925-vpgfhcq4uvfvvomgseru64dody-story.html) In the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0JqyHVY5G8), two women from Mexico interviewed in Spanish share their thoughts on the tough, thankless, isolated life they endure on the remote Hoopers Island during their multi-year stints in the U.S. So many communities across the nation have situations which mirror in microcosm our national crisis like this one. The bottom line here on Maryland's shore is that crab meat processing companies make less of a profit selling whole crabs to restaurants and supermarkets, because Americans don’t like the trouble of extracting the meat themselves, so they sponsor migrant workers and pay them subsistent wages to do that undesirable labor under slave like conditions -- yes, this has been happening since the 1980s right in Maryland’s backyard. “We cannot find [domestic] workers,” said Jay Newcomb, owner of Old Salty’s Restaurant in Fishing Creek. “We’ve done job fairs, we’ve contacted the detention centers, run ads all over the East Coast. We’ve tried colleges and temp agencies.” The local people are just not there, and you can’t relocate and/or force them to take these jobs. “I feel like I’m not here to take anyone’s job, says Vázquez. “On the contrary, I’m here to do a job that Americans don’t want to do. Latinos make economic life in this country grow. And I don’t accept or agree with the ideals of the president we have here in the United States, but I also respect the decisions that are made here, good or bad. As long as we are offered visas, I think we are going to be here. Whether it’s for many months or just a few; either way, we are grateful.”

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     It’s Sunday morning, and Vázquez gratefully attends mass. Religion is the racial equalizer here, at least on the surface. Church is the sole outlet where immigrants are superficially welcome in Dorchester County, a conservative community where the abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman was born and struggled to free fellow slaves. It provides a brief respite from the incessant, grueling work she endures week-to-week, year-to-year, but sometimes she has to work Sundays too. In the eyes of God, for an hour or so, she feels like she is an equal here, and she feels at peace. Later she will go to a grocery store where she feels welcome and is not treated with suspicion.

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      The federal temporary visa system works overall for both local economies and the guest workers, but the working conditions and quality of life for the latter is just short of appalling. The current restrictive immigration law not only hinders domestic commerce, but also makes life painful for the migrant workers who depend on this work to address the basic needs of their families back home. The system should be expanded and liberalized, not curtailed and made more stringent; anything short of that is plainly counter-economic. Furthermore, legislation should guarantee foreign workers’ wages and human rights on a par with American citizens. As already mentioned, people need to appreciate the human toll of the processed crab meat they enjoy on the backs of honest, hard-working Mexican mothers. In the words of Melva Vázquez, “There are a lot of sacrifices made here. You leave your family, your home, your country. You see new faces, hear a new language. I’ve been coming to Hoopers Island, to the company, for three years now. It’s something really nice, because it helps me financially, and I think we help the company financially. This is the life of a crab worker. Every single day. The work is heavy. Difficult.”

     So what can ordinary people do to help? Well, we can start by not following the president’s lead in being racist and insensitive to these workers, who are in the majority good, law abiding, church-going people slaving away doing work that most consider beneath us. When we treat them like sub-humans doing our dirty work, it makes life that much harder and more difficult for them. Surely God is watching us and is not pleased.

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