Panelists at this week’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs talked Trump, policy and...strawberries?
Turns out that strawberries, one of Florida’s most notable crops, can tell us a lot about how policy affects daily life.
Migrant labor took a front seat at a panel on Trump’s pro-wall, anti-immigrant rhetoric. Speakers discussed the lives and labor of undocumented workers who do a lot of the dirty work that sustains the economy. That includes strawberry picking.
Without the cheap and often grueling work of undocumented migrant workers, who lack the protections afforded to native workers, the cost of goods they help produce could increase.
Speaking to a packed audience at a seminar called “Here’s a tweet: build that wall and make them pay,” John van Keppel, a development consultant based in Guatemala, described the value of migrant labor.
Van Keppel asked the room to consider how the migrant workers affect the cost of goods and services. “If we didn’t have these undocumented workers coming in, how much would your strawberries be? How much would your tomatoes be? Your roof would be falling in,” he said.
Those who enter the country illegally often do so in search of greater freedom and economic opportunity. But opportunity has its cost, especially when it comes to illegal border crossing. Smuggler fees get as high as $10,000, and women who go through the process face a 90% probability of sexual assault, said van Keppel.
People living in the US on an expired visa also struggle.
Panelist Angelica “Vivi” Iglesias, who advocates for immigrants caught in the limbo of life without legal status, described the trying working conditions that most undocumented immigrants endure, regardless of how they got here.
Iglesias, the Associate Director of Hispanic Ministry at Diocese of St. Petersburg, explained that the pursuit of security, justice and freedom is part of what motivates twelve million undocumented immigrants “living in the shadows,” to continue their daunting and dangerous pursuit of a path to citizenship.
For twelve years Iglesias worked as an undocumented worker before getting a path to citizenship. In that time she cleaned toilets and skipped meals to make ends meet. Unskilled migrant workers like housekeepers and strawberry pickers often work in "conditions you would not put a dog in," said Iglesias.
But it’s not for nothing, said the now-U.S. citizen, who told the audience she would do it all over again for want of the liberty that brought her and her family here.
Recent Immigration Customs and Enforcement raids conducted under the Trump administration saw the incarceration and deportation of more than 680 immigrants living in the U.S. without authorization. The “targeted enforcement operations” came two weeks after Trump signed executive orders for the construction of “the wall,” the withholding of funds from sanctuary cities and amped up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.
ICE officials maintain that the raids were routine measures that have been carried out “for many years,” which is to say they are a continuation of the Obama administration’s immigration sweeps. But the recent sweeps saw an increase in deportation of people not convicted of crimes, marking a departure from those carried out under Obama.
In other words, they’re not the “bad hombres” Trump’s been talking about.
Senior Judge Arthur Grim, who also spoke on immigration at the conference, was quick to point out that “undocumented workers are significantly less involved in the criminal court system than the average US citizen.”
Grim described Trump’s “politics of fear” as a power-grabbing mechanism “designed to permit and facilitate the purveyor of that fear to win at all costs.”
In response to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, thousands of immigrants across the country shut down their businesses and stayed home from work on Thursday to boycott the deportation and discrimination against friends, family and compatriots who fuel economic and cultural vitality in the U.S. In cities like New York, building construction slowed, lines grew long and daily conveniences were in short supply without the work of immigrants, who make up 22% of the state’s population.
In Florida, life without immigrants would taste very different. Hillsborough, home to the third-largest population of Cuban immigrants in the US, would be an Ybor-less land without cafe con leche to enjoy while watching roosters root around Centennial Park.
If strawberries are your jam, now might be a good time to practice your picking skills. Trump’s policies could drive out the people who harvest the fruit that makes America great and keeps Plant City on the map. Of the estimated 19% immigrants that make up Florida’s population almost 5% are undocumented, according to a Pew report. The USDA Economic Research Center suggests that undocumented migrant workers make up 50% of hired farmworkers, including those who pick strawberries.
Fortunately the Florida Strawberry Festival is just around the corner. But for how long?