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.

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