What Does It Mean to Be "Illegal" in America?

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The new issue of GQ has a great article by Jeanne Marie Laskas about the immigrants who pick blueberries in Maine, which is seemingly a million miles away from Tucson, but does raise some issues about the people caught up in our arguments about citizenship, immigration, and humanity in general:

Wash the apple before you bite into it, because that's the way you were raised. Germs, pesticides, dirt, gunk, it doesn't matter—just wash it. The fingerprints, too, go down the drain with the rest. It's easy to forget that there are people who harvest our food. Sometimes, maybe, we are reminded of the seasons and the sun and the way of the apple tree, and if we multiply that by millions of apple trees, times millions of tomato plants, times all the other fruits and vegetables, we realize, holy potato chips, that's a lot of picking. Without 1 million people on the ground, on ladders, in bushes—armies of pickers swooping in like bees—all the tilling, planting, and fertilizing of America's $144 billion horticultural production is for naught. The fruit falls to the ground and rots.

Most of the people who pick our food come from Mexico. They blanket the entire country, and yet to most of us they're strangers, so removed from our lives we hardly know they're here, people hunched over baskets in the flat distance as we drive down vacation highways. If we imagine them having anything to do with our lives at all, the picture isn't good: 50 percent of the migrant-farmworker population is in the United States illegally, the one piece of the story Americans hear quite a lot about and are increasingly bothered by, or urged to be. On TV and talk radio and especially during election years, we're told we must work together to stop this national crisis. These people are robbing our homes and trafficking drugs and raping our children right there in our J.C. Penney dressing rooms. The bad guys make headlines, as bad guys will, and the rest, we're told, are a more insidious blight: taking American jobs, giving birth to bastard "anchor babies" in what Pat Buchanan once called "the greatest invasion in human history." Whether we buy into the rhetoric or not, one thing has been made clear: Illegal immigration is a problem reaching a breaking point, and something must be done.

Except there really is no invasion, no growing national crisis. In fact, recent statistics show that immigration from Mexico has actually gone down—and steeply so—over the past decade. (An estimated 80,000 unauthorized migrants crossed the Mexican border into the United States last year, down from 500,000 ten years ago.) More to the point: There is nothing new about this story. Importing foreign labor has always been the American way, beginning with 4 million slaves from Africa. Later came the Jews and Poles, the Hungarians, Italians, and Irish, the Chinese and Japanese—everything you learned in sixth-grade social studies about the great American melting pot. And with each group came a new wave of anti-immigrant, pro-Anglo rage.

Our current debate over how to control our borders is really just a rehashed version of a very old one cycling over the reach of history. It's a lively conversation about fairness and purity, about who belongs and who does not, and as a result, the people who pick our food are shamed into the shadows, nameless, mostly afraid, and certainly inconvenient to the experience of the satisfying first crunch and explosion of sugar that happens when we discover that this, oh yes, this apple is awesome.

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