Celebrating Immigrant Laborers
In the verdant valley that is Western Massachusetts, their bodies bend in a back-breaking rhythm, calloused hands plucking and cradling fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s a safe bet that thousands of migrant farm workers are not celebrating Labor Day today because they are actually engaged in labor, picking the last of the fall harvest.
But it is a day to celebrate the contribution of immigrant workers in this country. Long before the first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882, immigrants were hard at work building these United States.
If it weren’t for Irish emigrants who fled the Great Potato Famine in their native country, the Transcontinental Railroad might have been stopped in its tracks. Blasting through rock and soil, they labored along with German, Italian and Chinese immigrants. The Chinese workers could help build the country’s infrastructure but not call this land their own thanks to anti-Asian immigration laws at the time.
Workers from Poland, France and many other countries kept factories humming during the Industrial Revolution, working alongside children in rags who toiled in mills soon after they could walk.
If it weren’t for the Bracero programs of 1917 and 1942 the labor of some 4 million Mexican workers would die on the vine along with crops left unharvested. The labor of migrant farm workers remains so important to the U.S. agricultural industry that no caps are set on such seasonal visas, unlike others for non-agricultural foreign workers and those in specialized occupations.
The need for foreign labor is so great that the U.S. immigration system has never kept up with it, fostering a hidden labor force that slips over the borders and toils for U.S. employers without the benefit of the immigration system’s stamp of approval, and too often, laws that protect U.S. workers. With an aging U.S. workforce, parties on both side of the political aisle recognize that more needs to be done to ensure a place at the table for immigrant workers.
Today, the foreign born account for some 16 percent of the U.S. workforce. Notwithstanding the election year calls to keep them out and save jobs for Americans, it is a fact that these workers are the fuel that keeps the American economic engine running, albeit, a lot slower lately than in years past.
So, on this Labor Day, we should celebrate not only a day of rest from our own labors, but the work of all of those who come here from other shores. If it weren’t for them, life wouldn’t exist as we know it.