Undocumented agricultural workers around the country currently find themselves in the position of Schrödinger’s cat. In the eyes of the government, they are simultaneously illegitimate, an unwelcome threat to be contained and excised, and a vitally important workforce whose labor is among the few planks propping up a society disturbingly near total collapse. At some point, after the crisis posture has subsided, we will have to look in the box and see which perception has won out.
Harvesting cucumbers in Virginia
As the novel coronavirus has raged across the United States, it’s consumed many of the nation’s flimsy mythologies about joint national experience and exposed the rigid truths that lay below. People of color are dying in disproportionate numbers for all the predictable reasons of systemic racism in health care and the economy; most service sector workers can’t afford any lost income whatsoever, let alone unknown months of a disintegrated job market; and the entire food production system is dependent on undocumented laborers risking their health to keep working. Not only are these workers not staying at home, they’re working in conditions actively conducive to infection, sometimes harvesting crops in close proximity to one another with limited access to personal protective equipment and sick leave.
But in an acerbic twist of fate, these workers are now being issued letters from their employers informing them that their work was deemed “critical” by the Department of Homeland Security: the same department that contains Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the two agencies tasked with ever more aggressive and indiscriminate application of the immigration laws.
The letters are designed to allow such workers to transit freely between their homes and their jobs without getting ensnared by local stay-at-home orders or other pandemic response measures. Yet they don’t provide any official protection from Homeland Security itself, which has certified the workers as essential while offering no particular reprieve. It is an uneasy tension: one hand extends in gratitude, and the other waits, ready to slap on the cuffs.
The question is, when this ends—what will the state do? Having been caught in its lie, forced to finally recognize its utter dependence on the people it has spent so much time and energy minimizing, hunting down, jailing, and removing, will it relent? Or will it lash out harder, determined never again to have to make such an admission?
One feature of a pandemic is that it forces a certain consolidation of state power and surveillance. This is to some extent a necessary for a threat that can spread quickly across regions and which requires a centralized, decisive response. There is an argument to be made in favor of, say, letting the government trace the contagion with anonymized phone location data.
The trouble is that power hardly ever lets a good crisis go to waste and shows little interest in drawing the line at necessity. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—a man who mirrors Donald Trump in anti-immigrant nationalism and hatred of the media, and who Trump himself once called his “twin”—has completed his years-long project to end democracy by getting his parliament to give him the power of rule by decree, limit its own legislative powers, and suspend forthcoming elections, all under the guise of dealing with the coronavirus.
This is an extreme example, but it’s clear that across the board we’ll emerge from this moment with a much more robust surveillance state that will linger after the extant peril has subsided and a weary, shell-shocked population which will demand guarantees this won’t happen again, or at least will be better managed. Consider the last time many Americans felt this vulnerable on their own soil: immediately following 9/11, when Congress and the Bush administration fast-tracked the PATRIOT Act, a surveillance expansion of mind-boggling proportions, with almost no public review or input.
For a budding authoritarian facing an imminent election whose signature, animating issue has been a deep disgust of immigrants, coming down hard on the undocumented would surely prove a tempting opportunity to both flex his executive muscles and fling red meat to his base. It’s not hard to imagine the White House (or Stephen Miller in particular) taking the position that the pandemic has demonstrated the folly of having critical functions undergirded by irregular workers—that it’s even a matter of national security to cull “illegal aliens” from the ranks of the essential.
Some of the centralized tools which will have been developed to counter the pathogen could easily be redeployed in service of a widespread crackdown on those who just weeks before were essential personnel. Phone tracking, in a country that is now largely still, will register farmworkers going to the fields and the warehouses and then back to their homes. Use of cellphone data to conduct immigration enforcement isn’t a sci-fi fantasy; ICE reportedly already uses it in its arrest and removal operations, and nothing prevents them from expanding on this practice. The White House is already attempting to weaken privacy protections for health-related information, which could ultimately wind up in the hands of the enforcement agencies. These expanded capabilities could help address one of the biggest obstacles to targeting undocumented immigrants: the government’s general lack of good data on them.
If undocumented workers inhabit an American underclass in ordinary times, it will be orders of magnitude worse as they’re battered by the cratering economy with access to practically zero of the pandemic-related aid and assistance. Of an already very limited slate of powerful champions in government and society, how many will remain once some twenty million laid-off Americans flood back into the labor market in unison? There’s a better-than-average chance that when the smoke clears, the workers who fed this country in its time of greatest need will find themselves bruised and alone, their crucial contributions easily cast aside as the administration, smelling blood, closes in.
Undocumented immigrants being escorted back across the border to Mexico during Operation Wetback (1955), the biggest mass deportation of undocumented workers in United States history: 1.3 million people were deported (Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. This crisis-driven validation of the contributions of the undocumented could pave the way for a broader recognition of belonging, of citizenship in the classical sense and maybe even the legal one.
As part of its “war” with the virus, for example, Portugal has decided to temporarily grant full citizenship rights to everyone with a pending immigration application, reasoning that it was ultimately better for public health if everyone faced the joint enemy on equal footing. It’s a provisional step, but one which recognizes the fundamental point that the virus certainly doesn’t recognize our self-imposed distinctions between migrant, resident, and citizen.
Some acknowledgement of undocumented farmworkers’ fundamental role in the United States’ food security does precede the coronavirus. Last December, the House passed a bill specifically dedicated to providing status and establishing a path to citizenship for about three hundred twenty-five thousand undocumented farmworkers. It garnered the support of twenty-five Republicans, an astounding show of support for a Congress that struggles mightily to so much as agree on funding basic government functions.
Some of the bipartisan support undoubtedly flows from lobbying by agribusiness, which has long understood that it needs immigrant labor to keep the industry afloat, and they are getting significant concessions, like a troubling expansion of guest-worker programs with few protections for temporary farmworkers. Still, it’s telling that while industrial farm owners and the farmworker collectives and unions have fundamentally divergent interests, they are in lockstep when it comes to grasping the indispensability of the largely undocumented workforce.
The president has more direct authority over immigration than almost any other area of U.S. domestic policy-making. Decades of legislation and judicial review have vested the office with broad and discretionary powers, which this president has used to completely unleash immigration enforcement agencies. But he also possesses the plenary power to halt enforcement against any group of people he chooses and to grant additional rights to broad swaths of the undocumented population, as the DACA program has done for DREAMers.
The crisis has forced the Trump administration to formally acknowledge the existence of a vast and vital group of undocumented laborers. It is now undeniable, and this concession will trigger some kind of response.
There are two clear trajectories: we can wait until they get us through one of the most serious catastrophes in recent American history, and then throw them to the wolves. The calamity itself has provided sharper tools than ever to target undocumented workers, and our leaders are unlikely to face much repercussions for doing so. Or we can give our thanks, and get to the work of rebuilding our society, together.