Ghosts on the farm

I have worked with ghosts for decades. They’ve been part of our family’s fields, and on many farms across our lands. They want to remain undetected, laboring in the shadows, avoiding scrutiny.

But it’s not just agriculture that has ghosts; they’re part of communities and businesses throughout the nation. They’re commonly called undocumented workers, illegal aliens, unauthorized immigrants.

They escape the public spotlight, work underground and often demand little. In this election year, we have the opportunity to shed light on them. But the question is: How do they become visible? The words and terms we use to frame the debate will control the discussion.

Let’s start with numbers. It’s easy to toss around a figure, such as an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, without stopping to do the math.

Twelve million is the entire population of Pennsylvania or the combined residents of Washington state, Oregon, and let’s toss in Montana and Idaho. Imagine these states evacuating everyone — as some politicians clamor for the cleansing of our borders. The idea of “throwing out all illegals in 120 days” is simply unworkable.

Next, compare the terms “illegal” versus “undocumented.” It’s easy to label these ghosts “illegals” because then the solutions are simple: Toss them out because they’ve broken the law. “Illegal” connotes an absolute right and wrong, thus justifying extreme consequences.

Framing these people as criminals provides a rationale for harsh penalties.

“Undocumented” implies a lack of proper paperwork and processing. While possibly requiring penalties, “undocumented” places an emphasis on finding a solution and remedy to the problem — what documentation should be required and how do we regulate the process?

The vast majority of these ghosts have committed victimless crimes. Most are not hardened criminals with records of aggravated assaults resulting in injuries or damage of property.

The term “alien” (often used with “illegal”) carries a subversive meaning. Aliens — like weeds — don’t belong here. They’re foreigners and strangers — not part of us.

My grandmother was a resident alien and was required to register annually with the government. This wasn’t a big issue until the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Suddenly she became “the enemy” and a cry was launched to round up all these enemy aliens. Overnight, she had become part of the axis of evil against the United States.

Ironically, tens of thousands of Italian and German immigrants were also resident aliens but they were somehow different. The majority of them did not register, yet they were not evacuated and imprisoned in relocation camps.

The term “immigrant worker” reframes the debate. These ghosts contribute to local and regional economies. They are wanted. They fill jobs often few will do. They’re a type of economic refugee, fleeing the poverty and economic conditions of one country and seeking a better life here. A century ago we called these people “ancestors.”

By using terms like “immigration,” we expand our perspective globally.

We are not alone in the debate. Europe also struggles with very similar questions. As we talk of the globalization of economies, where does labor fit in? From a different perspective, are the ghosts I speak about part of a modified outsourcing economy? With a proper guest-worker program, instead of exporting jobs to another country, why not import the labor and keep jobs here? Why is offshoring considered efficient and good for business while a guest-worker program is labeled exploitive?

A final term — “unauthorized immigrant” — acknowledges the lack of processing and following necessary procedures required to enter the United States. However, it also raises the question that lies at the heart of this issue: What is the proper authorization? Rather than an emotional reaction to an imagined threat, this approach calls for a national debate and a discussion of what should be required as we work toward a workable solution. We have the power to make tough and difficult decisions.

We are challenged by a simple question: How do we define these ghosts? How do we give them body? So long as we deny these millions “their body,” the public will believe simple-minded answers can work.

The ghosts I know have identities. They are real people, not numbers. They do real work. With “a body,” these ghosts can begin to claim their place in our world, leading to their own self-definition.

We need to stop ignoring these ghosts and demand more of our leaders and ourselves.

We have an opportunity to act responsibly and build a rational immigration policy based on economic realities rather than some vague cultural threat. These ghosts are woven into the economic and social fabric of our nation. The words we choose will define who these people are. We can give names to the nameless and make them real.

(David Mas Masumoto, an award-winning author and farmer in the Del Rey area of California’s San Joaquin Valley, is also a Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy fellow. E-mail him at masumotobee(at)


  1. AnnS

    (1) You ADMIT that your family has repeatedly violated the criminal law of the US by hiring illegals.

    Think Immigration can find your family from your name? Seems pretty likley. It carries a 10 year prison sentence and forfeiture of that farm.

    (2) “”Illegal” connotes an absolute right and wrong, thus justifying extreme consequences. Framing these people as criminals provides a rationale for harsh penalties.”

    That is because they ARE here illegally!. They violated the law by sneaking in and then using fraudulent or stolen ID.

    (3) “Undocumented” implies a lack of proper paperwork and processing. While possibly requiring penalties, “undocumented” places an emphasis on finding a solution and remedy to the problem — what documentation should be required and how do we regulate the process?”

    Thing is uneducated, ignorant, unskilled and illiterate peasants wouldn’t have been admitted in the FIRST place as permanent residents when immigrating solely for economic reasons.

    Ergo, they would NEVER have gotten ‘documentation.’

    (4) The vast majority of these ghosts have committed victimless crimes.

    Total and complete bullhockey.

    (a) They drive down wages. The wages in the construction industry are less than 1/2 what they were 30 years ago.

    (b) They take up housing and drive up rental prices.

    (c) They use up taxpayer money (and no, they csot more than they contribute) in terms of schools and health care. Having to have ESL classes for their spawn runs up costs, uses up scarce dollars for education and thus deprives the students whose families are legally here. (Call it theft of services.)

    (d) Just wait until one of these lawbreakers steals or uses you ID and you are the victim of identity theft. You’ll just LOVE getting dunned by some hospital 800 miles away for the bills for their misbegotten brats.

  2. Cailleach

    So tell me, AnnS, How much do you want to be paid to pump out septic tanks? That’s the kind of jobs illegals do where I live.

  3. almandine

    Well Cailleach, what does that have to do with it? AnnS wouldn’t know a septic tank pump from a flyswatter. The question I have is, what is it about our tax dollars that need to be spent on welfare, healthcare, etc., for ghosts? Did we invite them here? No. They came here without invitation, take what they can and send it back to wherever… invest very little in return… and ask that we help them with it. Yes, they do good work. So what? What about septic tank jobs for Americans? Yeah, I know you believe none will do that work, but my septic tank has been pumped 3 times over the last 5 years and none of them were other than good old American boys. There’s a problem here with parallelity of arguments… as there always is… you can’t be either logical or emotional without getting hit from the other side. Trying to address both points of view leaves you open to abuse from all sides.

    IMPORTANTLY, give it about another six months (if that) and it won’t matter. The US economy is in the tank – REALLY SERIOUSLY – we won’t have a pot and they won’t have a window to throw it out of, and they’ll probably have to go back home to farm that plot they left behind. Only now, they’ll have expectations and bitterness – against us. I hope you have a plot and a few seeds, too… parked under that flyswatter… and a remedy for your own bitterness. Like me, you’re gonna need it.

  4. Donnat

    Amazing how a few immigrants earning $16K a year can cause the average American to foam at the mouth while corporate CEOs who reward themselves tens of millions of ‘bonus’ dollars for running a company into the ground and the Bush Admin spending about $7000 per SECOND in Iraq to mostly kill civilians, doesn’t even make them flinch.

    Which one is worse for the economy? To me, it’s a no brainer. But Bush apologists, ‘poor-haters’ and every pro-business, pro-Halliburton politician wants to keep those illegals front and center, just like they want to keep ‘welfare moms’ on Judge Judy – it gives government spending a face you can hate on while the real looters get spectacularly richer as they remain faceless.


  5. almandine

    So who can do a friggin thing about corporate CEOs or Bushco spending money in I-rack? We can’t even get the Congress to quit passing laws that allow our civil rights to be abrogated.

    My good blue collar construction friend can’t even compete with the eleven illegal constructionistas living next door. You show the way out – or in – or in-between – if you have the answer. It’s not ALWAYS about republicans. Gimme a break, ideologue.

  6. tropicaltaco

    I’m with you David and Donnat, well put.
    I am a smalltime farmer (10acres) and I can tell you it’s not easy staying afloat. I would not be able to make it without the occasional help from these fine folks from Guatemala and their willingness to work. These are some of the finest people I have ever or will ever meet. Some of you people need to lighten up and get that stick out of your ass. Try to realize we are all family here on this tiny globe spinning through space.
    If you want a possible solution here it is; Invitation, a person or a group of people could invite Juan and Lupita Martinez to work here with them and be responsible for them while they are here. Or end poverty with all the trillions wasted on this “illegal” war.
    Of all the undocumented workers