Putting a Stop to Slave Labor

A moral solution to illegal immigration


| Utne Reader March / April 2007


I remember my feelings of disbelief when, in the fourth grade, we read about the lives of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Until then, I'd been taught to revere Washington's honesty and Jefferson's brilliance. To me, their powdered wigs and knee breeches symbolized a golden era when America's moral mandate and ethical superiority seemed unassailable.

Yet those colonial heroes who wrote that 'all men are created equal' and legendarily declared 'I cannot tell a lie' owned slaves. Even at the age of 9, it made no sense to me that we who worshiped freedom not only tolerated but endorsed human bondage.

I was in high school when the deeper horrors of slavery became apparent: dislocated families, deplorable living conditions, sexual servitude, torture.

I was just out of college and working for a bilingual newspaper in northern New Mexico by the time I recognized the irony: My fourth-grade classmates' parents were keeping local farms and businesses afloat by doing work no 'legal' laborer would do. Living in cinderblock hovels hidden away behind the sand hills of southern New Mexio, they made less than minimum wage, suffered inhumane working conditions, and could not protest for fear of deportation.

Economically speaking, they served the same purpose as the Africans who slaved for American masters through the first half of our nation's history. They provided the cheap labor that allowed us to establish dominance in the international marketplace. And they were invisible.

Chances are that the roof on your home or the food on your table or the tiles on your floor were put there by undocumented workers. In the United States, farmers, food processors, roofers, ranchers, country clubs, contractors, hotels, and mechanics depend on low-wage 'illegal aliens.' The United Farm Workers told the New York Times in September that an estimated 90 percent of California's farmworkers were undocumented. On some construction sites in Seattle, 90 percent of the workers are native Spanish speakers, according to inspectors, construction foremen, and union organizers interviewed by the Seattle Times in 2006. The U.S. Department of Labor figures that some 85 percent of recent immigrants from Mexico are undocumented.

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