Of Mercy and Justice (Nov – Dec 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Bruce Woodall
November – December, 1993

16The first migrant workers I ever knew were the ones my father hired on our East Texas ranch. They were “wetbacks,” alien workers from Mexico who crossed the Rio Grande by night and provided a major part of the agricultural labor in Texas. Most of them were married men who worked for a few months and sent their money back home to families in impoverished Mexican villages.

It is a tribute to the way my father treated hired help that I did not for many years associate our ranch hands with such third world ideas as exploitation and economic injustice. During my training as a physician, I gained a much better understanding of America’s migrant workers when dale and I were asked to staff a seasonal clinic in the fruit-producing region of South Carolina near our residency hospital.

Migrant farm laborers hardly fit the stereotype of the medically indigent many are familiar with. Demographically, the migrant population is estimated at 3 million to 5 million workers and their families nationwide. Eighty-five percent are ethnic minorities, predominantly Spanish-speaking Latin Americans whose numbers include Mexican aliens, Central American refugees, and Hispanic-American citizens of multi-generational migrant heritage.

Migrants today consist of predominantly intact family units who live as part of working communities supporting a vital cog in our nation’s economic wheel. In 1989, they harvested $253 million worth of U.S. crops, allowing American families to continue spending a smaller percentage of their budget on food than people in most other countries.

Yet for the most part, America’s migrants remain a disenfranchised third-world people – in some cases living and working virtually across the fence from American churches scarcely aware of their existence. They provide us with a contemporary case study of insitutionalized oppression, an unpleasant concept we tend to associate with corrupt foreign governments and primitive third-world societies. Perhaps it has been the ability to distance ourselves from the realities of overt structural injustice that has made it an easy subject to overlook.

But God is not pleased when we overlook the oppressed. “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustices; who makes his neighbor work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says ‘I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms ….’ Did your father eath and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him, He judged the cause of the poor and the needy, then it was well. Is this not to know me? says the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:13-16).

The living conditions endured by migrants cover the spectrum. Some are overcrowded, dilapidated shelters without indoor plumbing or refrigeration. Some facilities are managed by conscientious farmers who provide good housing, dining halls, and full-time camp cooks. They are the exceptions. Most labor camps are substandard at best. Housing and camp standard regulations vary from state to state, and often go unenforced for lack of inspection personnel.

For the duration of the harvest season most migrant families will indenture themselves to a “crew boss,” typically a bilingual American citizen who operates as an agent contracting with produce owners for harvest jobs. Crew bosses, many of which are former migrant laborers themselves, hire, manage, and pay migrant labor crews, who remain dependent upon them for work assignments and their most basic needs.

In many cases, migrant workers receive a daily wage only when work is available, while their bosses make daily pay deductions for room, board, alcohol, tobacco, and other items regardless of work availability. In a lean harvest year when work is scarce, the workers run the risk of completing the season in debt to their crew boss, a liability that may be carried over to the next year, creating a predicament reminiscent of the “company store’ servitude of mining history infamy. Some crew bosses have also been known to increase their own profits by cutting corners on worker pay and care expenditures.

The system – produce growers who deal only with crew boss and have little or no direct responsibility to the workers, coupled with crew bosses in a position of near absolute power over the workers, especially those who speak no English or who can be threatened with deportation – is ripe for exploitation.

Where work is abundant, all family members age 12 and over go to the fields while younger children baby-sit their infant and toddler siblings. This arrangement is an economic necessity. As farm work is exempt from minimum wage laws and sporadic, the average yearly income is $7,500 per family, all wage earners combined.

Because the harvest season lasts longer than public school summer break, and the agricultural industry also is exempt from child labor laws beyond age 12, it is not surprising that only 12% of migrant children ever receive a high school diploma. Nationwide, an estimated 250,000 full-time migrant workers are under age 17.

Migrant farm workers are among America’s true working poor, unable to afford health insurance yet ineligible for Medicaid because they are unemployed. The result is seen in the health status of the workers themselves:

  • Their average life expectancy is 49 years. The national average is 73.5 years.
  • Farm labor recently surpassed mining as statistically the most dangerous occupation in America, yet in most states the workers are ineligible for Worker’s Compensation.
  • Migrants contract parasitic infections at 20 times the national average.
  • Thirty-eight percent of migrant children will suffer an acute respiratory infection compared to 17% of the general populace.
  • Only 10% of migrant children under the age of six get an annual medical examination and less than a third have an annual dental checkup.
  • Childhood mortality among migrants is 1.6 times higher than the U.S. average.

Presently the bulk of migrant health care services flow through a network of federally subsidized clinics designed to meet their particular needs. Traditionally, language and cultural barriers as well as the peculiarities of their work and lifestyles have made it difficult for migrant workers to use conventional health care facilities, except in the case of severe illness or childbirth.

At best, migrant health needs remain grossly underserved. Yet simply expanding the migrant clinic network will do little to change the realities seen in the dismal health statistics. As long as migrants remain locked into a structurally oppressive system, social services alone remain temporary and palliative.

As a religious movement we have always been open to social service, or works of mercy toward the poor and needy. At the same time we have shied away from social action, or the quest for justice aimed at alleviating the sources of suffering that create the need for our works of mercy. When we speak of a biblical response to the poor and oppressed our hearts soften at the thought that there are poor in need of help. We have a commendable tradition of impressive generosity when presented with genuine need. We are less comfortable with the idea that some are poor because they are oppressed, perhaps even by social or economic systems in which we are participants or at least in which we have the power to enact change. A consistent biblical response mandates a response to both the needs and the causes of suffering. In reality a distinction between social service and social action is neither biblical nor practical.

What is needed for migrants in particular is careful directed action for reform of at least three aspects of the migrant labor system: child labor, wages, and protection from abuse by unethical crew bosses. Changes such as these require the integrated involvement of committed and well-informed healthcare providers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and businessmen. here are some things we can do:

Become Well Informed

Meet and listen to the poor and those involved with their concerns. Visit their homes and workplaces and gain as broad a perspective as possible. There is much we can learn from experienced believers in churches with strong traditions of social involvement. Take full advantage of the fact that everyone involved has an insight and some power to enact change.

Study the Issues

On the surface things may appear simple, yet in reality they are not. The migrant system is one example of a complex, deeply entrenched economic and sociological institution for which there are no simple solutions.

Imagine changing the law to make employment of migrant children illegal, a seemingly appropriate reform. The loudest cries of protest would come from the migrants themselves. A household living so close to the edge financially can scarcely afford the luxury of able-bodied members who do not work and contribute to the family income.

Consider also the question of wage reform. Under the present market bidding system, produce growers do not set prices for their harvest. The buyers bid a price and the grower can take it or reject it. So the growers have no power to raise prices on their crops to compensate for added costs, such as minimum wage labor. Asking the producers alone to bear that cost rather than passing it on to the consumer, would bankrupt many farms, further limiting what meager jobs are available to unskilled farm workers.

Regarding education, advocates of the poor will face perhaps the most tenacious of obstacles – the internalization of poverty. Having lived in a culture of impoverishment for generations, many migrants do not believe they can succeed in any other lifestyle. They may, for example, see little or not value in education, leaving migrant children without family encouragement to remain in school.

Educate the Public

During our time in South Carolina we were surprised to find most people in the town where we lived were unaware that more than 2,000 migrants come into the county each summer. They arrive in the dark of the night, stay a short while at each location, and remain cloistered within the work camp. They are mostly unseen, without voice or political priority. Here are some ways to help more people know about them:

  • Contact local news sources and encourage them to run features on migrants in the area, and ask that they emphasize the workers’ contribution to the local economy and our country’s food surplus, as well as the system’s injustice to them.
  • Give presentations about migrant healthcare issues to meetings of local healthcare providers, business groups, and churches.
  • Challenge churches to see the inconsistency of sending missionaries to Latin America while ignoring oppression of the Hispanics in their midst.

Become Politically Involved

While in residency, I was asked to be part of a state-wide council concerning migrant healthcare issues. Few members of the council actually had direct conctact with migrant families, and though orchard owners had been asked to participate, they had a presence at only one meeting.

As a physician to migrants, I was able to give a more accurate view of their situation. Having grown up on a working ranch, I was able to give personal insight into the perspective of the agricultural families who employ them. I also persuaded the council to allocate resources for conferences regarding migrant healthcare issues at each of the family practice residency programs in the state, an intentional targeting of the state’s future primary care physicians.

Becoming advocates of the disenfranchised with whom our God so clearly identifies requires that we take our faith to the streets. Institutionalized religion confined to refining doctrine, practicing sacraments, and “keeping oneself unstained by sin” has no power to promote a vision of shalom to the world around us. Our God is not solely the God of the church and the people within it. He is the God of the universe, the secular as well as the sacred. Nowhere does the Bible state that the political arena or other secular settings are off limits to the Christian seeking to defend his vision of justice and mercy.

Following the Prince of Peace may mean going beyond our traditional comfort zones in direct response to biblical concerns for justice in our communities. A sense of outrage in the face of evil or opposition must result in action on our neighbor’s behalf. We must show that our God is a God of justice as well as justification. Unless our actions show that we are serious about dealing with social problems, we will never be perceived as salt and light.

Christian social action may mean that we go to the picket line or participate in a boycott. It might ask that we call or write our congressman or even campaign for men and women of faith willing to fight for godly values within the halls of government. It might ask us to invest time in becoming astute to the burning social issues of the day, daring to take critical looks inward and to ask uncomfortable questions. It may require that we speak up before a public hearing, raise an unpopular objection at a corporate board meeting, or make a protesting withdrawal of our membership from a prestigious professional organization. It might even challenge us to run for public office.

Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor
and needy
~ (Proverbs 31:8-9).Wineskins Magazine

Dr. Bruce Woodall, with his wife Dr. Dale Woodall, lives in Jellico, Tennessee. Both are family physicians serving the Appalachian poor in a community health center.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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