The American Harvest Film and The “Pro-Immigration”, Anti-Worker Argument

A few weeks ago, I attended the premiere of “American Harvest,” a new documentary by an independent Rochester, New York, filmmaker. The promotional materials for the film promised viewers an “even-handed,” “non-political” look at the agricultural industry in the United States, with an emphasis on the role played by immigration. What we got instead was a naïve, incomplete, and shamefully ignorant portrait of agriculture in the United States-with the same skewed approach to the immigration question that has been all too popular in recent years.

As a paralegal and outreach worker at Farmworker Legal Services of New York, a nonprofit law office that is based in Rochester and serves farm workers throughout the state, I was very curious to see what an “even-handed” exploration of agriculture would look like.  From my two years providing legal services to farm workers in Upstate New York, I expect any honest, in-depth look at American agriculture-an industry powered by a workforce that is about 90% immigrant and 80% undocumented-to address the ubiquitous exploitation that characterizes this and most other low-wage, immigrant-powered industries.  About half an hour into “American Harvest,” I knew that no such issues would be addressed.

The film’s director, Angelo Mancuso, appears to have begun this project with honorable intentions, and I’m sure he feels his film is supportive of the mostly immigrant workers who plant and harvest America‘s crops.  Indeed, “American Harvest” is genuinely sympathetic to the danger migrants face crossing the border, and does a decent job of communicating just how dangerous these crossings have become.  However, in scene after scene of his movie Mr. Mancuso fundamentally fails to understand the nature of our country’s agricultural system and the brutal conditions suffered by its labor force.  Essential facts are omitted, crucial context is lacking, and rosy clichés about farm workers’ satisfaction with their lot in life go unquestioned.

What really troubles me is what the film represents. The lie that drives “American Harvest” is the same lie at the heart of the business-dominated, mainstream “pro-immigration” movement: once a limitless supply of legal immigrant workers is made legally available to U.S. businesses, there will be no problems left to solve in these industries.  The lack of workers’ rights, the hazardous workplace conditions, the poverty wages-these issues have no more place in the mainstream pro-immigration argument than they do in Mr. Mancuso’s film.

“We love to work hard!”

“American Harvest” consists of two closely related messages, which Mr. Mancuso hammers into his viewers in scene after scene.  Theme number one: immigrant workers love filling America‘s least desirable jobs, and their only wish is to have an easier time accessing those jobs. Theme number two: farmers, or growers, as they’re called in the industry, are the heart and soul of America, and their only wish is to have easier access to the hardworking immigrants who help their businesses run.  “American Harvest” positions itself as a counterweight to the current wave of xenophobia (CNN’s Lou Dobbs is cited several times by interviewees), offering a glittering image of the great country we could have again if we would just open the border and give our salt-of-the-earth farmers what they’re asking for. 

With these themes laid out clearly in the first few minutes, Mr. Mancuso goes to work bombarding his viewers with 90 minutes of talking heads, mainly filmed in Immokalee, in southern Florida; Kent, in western New York; and the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation on the U.S.-Mexican border.  The majority of the interviewees are growers, produce brokers, or others profiting from agricultural business.  Without fail, each subject confirms the total lack of Americans willing to do farm work, and each reassures us that the mostly Latino farm workers are happy to do it, as they are now upwardly mobile and on the way to the American Dream.

In the earliest scene in the film to set my internal alarm bells ringing, a jovial Florida produce broker expounds on the love farm workers have for their jobs.  They have a great time in the field, he explains, because it’s a family experience; they pass the workday singing, laughing, and dancing.  We don’t have to take his word for it:  Mr. Mancuso illustrates this monologue with footage of apparently cheerful Latino workers laughing as they toss watermelons down a human chain-and, yes, one even does a little dance.  We have to understand, the broker goes on, that Mexicans and Central Americans would be doing this same work in their home countries, but for much less money; hence their gratitude to their employers.  "This is a like a kid out of the ghetto going to Yale,” he declares.

This scene plays like a funhouse version of a similar moment in Edward R. Murrow’s famous 1960 documentary for CBS News, “Harvest of Shame.”  In that film, whose central purpose was to condemn the American agricultural system as a continuation of antebellum slavery, a grower patiently explains why migrants are not just willing but happy to lead such a difficult lifestyle, barely making enough from their long hours of work to make it to the next farm on the trail: “They’ve got a little bit of that Gypsy blood in their veins.”  The difference in “Harvest of Shame” is that this racist evocation of the “happy slave” stereotype is shown in context.  Murrow gives the growers and brokers a voice in his story, but he inter-cuts their self-serving platitudes with interviews with some decidedly not cheerful migrant workers, who all describe the injustices they experience.

Some fifty years later, Mr. Mancuso appears to have trouble finding any such dissatisfied workers. In a typical scene, the director interviews a group of Jamaican guestworkers hanging out next to a tractor.  “Do you guys like to work hard?” he asks.  “Yeah, man, we love to work hard!” the workers answer with grins.  “How do like your boss, is he a good boss?”  The reply: “Yeah, he’s a good boss, man.”  A number of Latino workers interviewed in “American Harvest” echo these sunny sentiments-although, defying probability, all but one of them speak English.

Did this filmmaker just happen to run into uniformly content workers?  Or has farm work been cleansed of exploitation since the days of “Harvest of Shame”?  Either explanation would work for Angelo Mancuso.  When I asked him, at the film’s opening, why he had chosen not to mention, for example, the slavery conditions known to exist in Florida agriculture, he shot back, “Weren’t you listening?  Didn’t you hear those workers in Immokalee say that they liked their jobs?”

More seriously, I would suggest that Mr. Mancuso’s interviews were skewed by weeding out non-English speakers, and further distorted by the presence-visible at times, and implied at others-of the workers’ bosses during the interviews.  It’s possible that a filmmaker with no real knowledge of American agriculture would not realize how unlikely it would be for workers to voice genuine concerns under these circumstances.

(Incidentally, Mr. Mancuso mentioned at the screening that Maureen Torrey, one of the most powerful farm owners in Western New York, paid for some of his filmmaking expenses, including flying him to a growers’ conference in Washington, D.C.-another possible explanation for his grower-friendly approach to the subject.)

But it’s difficult, albeit tempting, to accept Mr. Mancuso’s ignorance as sufficient explanation for this farce.  If he truly did not know that exploitation exists in farm work, he could have rectified this easily enough.  Take the twenty minutes of “American Harvest” set in Immokalee.  With a simple Google search, the director would have learned that the Immokalee area has had half a dozen agricultural slavery cases-not just slavery-like conditions­, but actual slavery, according to the federal government-exposed in the last ten years.  Many workers in Immokalee continue to live twelve to a single trailer, while paying rent prices that rival Manhattan‘s.  Mainstream regional newspapers like the St. Petersburg Times and the Naples Daily News have reported these conditions thoroughly, as have major magazines, including National Geographic and the New Yorker.  Abuse is hardly an obscure aspect of farm work in Florida.

Likewise, part of the film takes place west of Rochester, in the town of Kent.  With minimal research, Mr. Mancuso would have been aware of another slavery case involving farm workers, just eight miles from Kent in the town of Albion.  This case, exposed by my office in 2001, was the first human trafficking case prosecuted in New York State under the then-brand new Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and received attention in the local press.  Like the Florida cases, it reinforced what human rights advocates already understood: farm workers are so disenfranchised of even the most basic civil and labor rights that they make perfect targets for modern-day slave drivers to exploit.  Yet Mr. Mancuso, who was raised in a rural town not far from Albion, again finds this side of the story inconvenient to mention.  

“Close to Slavery”

What all this tells us, then, is that “American Harvest’s” optimistic depiction of farm work was more or less decided on before the piece was filmed.  Much of this is due to Mr. Mancuso’s definition of immigration reform.  While vague on details, the essential reform championed by “American Harvest” is the same reform promoted by business leaders in agriculture and other immigrant-powered industries: the amendment of our immigration laws to allow more workers to come here on temporary guest-worker visas, staying for a few months or years and then returning home.  He also seems to favor an amnesty, to bestow some form of legitimate status on undocumented workers already in the country.  Growers in particular would love such reforms, because they would provide a steady labor supply and remove the current anxiety over the prospect of waking up one morning and finding the federal government’s rounded up their workforce.

President Bush, as it happens, is one of this argument’s most prominent proponents.  When Bush was pushing a guestworker program last year, he made no reference to the already existing “H2” visas, despite the fact that about 120,000 workers came to the U.S. on these visas last year.  For advocates who have seen the H2 program in action, it’s not hard understand why: the current guestworker system is a workers’ rights disaster.  As documented in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lengthy but very readable March, 2007 report, “Close to Slavery,” the H2A and H2B programs-which allow immigrants to stay in the U.S. for up to three years at a time, performing agricultural and non-agricultural “unskilled” labor, respectively-are rife with the kinds of abuse more often associated with the world of illicit labor. 

When I first started working with farm workers, I shared the widely-held belief that more guest worker visas would benefit low-wage immigrant workers, by giving them the chance to “come out of the shadows” (a favorite phrase in this debate) and petition for better conditions in their workplaces without fear of deportation.  And, in spite of the undeniable exploitation that characterized the first major guestworker program for Mexicans, the Bracero program of 1942-1964, I believed that an expanded guest worker program would give immigrant workers additional rights and allow the government to better enforce those rights.

There have been many news stories in the last few years on the sad fates of guestworkers in the United States, from forestry workers in Northern California to reconstruction workers in post-Katrina New Orleans, all facing extremely dangerous conditions and receiving a fraction of the pay they were promised in their home countries.  The most powerful lesson for me, though, came from working with dozens of Thai farm workers saddled with upwards of $17,000 per person in debt from recruitment fees and then dumped in farms around the country that had little work for them to do.  By the time I met these workers, they hadn’t been paid for almost a month, putting them in danger of losing the ancestral farmlands they had put up as collateral in Thailand.

Despite being obvious victims of fraud, these workers found their H2A visas were no more than pieces of paper when they started looking for some kind of governmental authority to intervene on their behalf and get them the wages promised in their contracts.  In the end, a patchwork assembly of legal service agencies and Thai-American community groups stepped in and succeeded in recovering a small percentage of the money owed.  Most of the workers, desperately in need of income if they wanted to have homes to return to in Thailand, ended up tossing their visas aside and choosing to work illegally.  These workers voted with their feet: guestworker status is useless, they demonstrated, if workers here legally need to opt out and go back into “the shadows” if they want to feed their families.

This is precisely the kind of scenario that President Bush and his friends in the corporate sector would prefer the public not know about-and that Mr. Mancuso apparently felt might ruin his film by making it too complicated.  The crucial flaw in the argument for more guestworker visas is the assumption that a lack of labor rights won’t be written into United States law.  As it is, nearly all farmworkers in the United States are excluded from most of the labor protections instituted by the major laws of the New Deal period.  The warm, fuzzy feeling suffusing “American Harvest” might suffer if viewers were to learn that H2A and H2B workers can be sent home for virtually any reason, can easily be banned from returning to the U.S. by use of a de facto blacklist, and are not entitled to many of the safety regulations and other labor rights afforded to other workers in the United States.

Even if those rights were granted under a guestworker program-which would first require the business community to drop its objection to what is says is the cumbersome paperwork that greater legal protections would entail-there would still be a crucial lack of government infrastructure in place to enforce those rights.  What’s more, the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are ridiculously understaffed and under-funded without hundreds of thousands more workers to keep track of. This means that should guestworkers make a complaint, they are far more likely to be deported and blacklisted than to get their pay.

Just a few days ago, a Mexican H2A client of mine with wage problems told me how disappointed he was that the United States had not kept its promise to pay him fairly.  “All I’m looking for in this country is respect,” he said.  He is thinking, he told me, about ditching the documented job and looking for work illegally.  He bitterly regrets having come here through legal channels instead of sneaking across the border.  Unless the massive guestworker programs proposed by Bush and others provide far more labor rights and a much stronger mechanism for enforcing them, there will be hundreds of thousands of workers making this same choice, heading right back into the shadows and leaving dishonest employers with millions of dollars in wages that do not belong to them.

Clearly, a lack of legal status is not what stands between millions of low-wage workers and brutal exploitation.  What makes the relationship between undocumented workers and their employers so ripe for abuse is the total imbalance of power.  As long as the most powerful shapers of immigration reform remain silent on the subject of power relations, we can count on crops picked by slaves and near-slaves, documented or not.

“Crops without plowing”

But this is all so ugly: betrayed workers, crooked employers, starving families in foreign countries being evicted from their homes.  As the maker of “American Harvest” well knows, it is far more reassuring for audiences to see joyful, grateful immigrants standing side by side with farmers and labor contractors, the former proclaiming their love for hard work and the latter vouching for the solid work ethic of their employees.  They’re making a case, in fact, for Mexicans and Central Americans as a new model minority: the film’s American subjects make numerous references to the millions of their fellow citizens supposedly living off of welfare because they’re too lazy to pick up a hoe.

A better explanation for the lack of American-born workers in the agricultural industry, I would argue, can be found in the horrible conditions workers face at nearly every farm: frequent exposure to cancer-causing pesticides, poverty wages, and the unwillingness of most government agencies, local as well as federal, to enforce even those few labor laws that apply to this industry.  If more honest, critical voices on the reality of low-wage labor can’t find a place in the mainstream immigration debate, none of these conditions will change.

These voices would clearly need to include the major labor unions with immigrant bases, such as SEIU, Unite Here, and the United Farm Workers, but would also need to come from less traditional places: independent labor groups the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, immigrant farm workers in southern Florida who have won great victories in their struggle for just wages; pro-worker lobbyists such as the Farmworker Justice Fund; and institutions like the aforementioned Southern Poverty Law Center, whose Immigrant Justice Project continues to turn out excellent reports to accompany its struggles in the courtroom.

Ultimately, though, this crisis can’t be fixed by grassroots movements alone.  The problems in America’s low-wage, immigrant-heavy industries stem from (among other things) unfair trade policies, cyclical poverty in foreign countries, and a crippling lack of governmental infrastructure to enforce existing American labor laws.  None of this can be solved without a fundamental change in priorities at the highest levels of the United States government.

“American Harvest” reflects the corporate-approved approach to immigration reform in our era: use workers as colorful props when you need to, but leave their rights out of it.  Those who call for immigration reform but refuse to acknowledge the abuses endemic to our current agricultural system want, as Frederick Douglas said, “crops without plowing up the ground … They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”  The dream of an unequal but harmonious society, in which exploitation does not result in conflict, has been a fantasy of the business elite for centuries.  In the current American immigration debate, that dream lives on.


Readers interested in learning more about the situation of farm workers in New York State should feel free to contact me at