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)aol.com.)