Every day, at a corner in the town near our farm, undocumented Latino men gather, hoping to land a day's work with passing contractors. Not long ago, half a dozen people calling themselves the "Lone Star Minutemen" descended on this corner to protest illegal immigration. These Minutemen appropriated their name from the militia of the American Revolution, who had to be ready to swap plows for muskets in a minute to defend their new country. Those independent small farmers became a cornerstone of the United States' civic mythology. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson believed them to be both sources and guardians of democracy itself.
Today's Minutemen want stricter limits on immigration. But that approach would shut out people who come as close as anyone to living Jefferson's vision. That's certainly true of some Mexican neighbors of mine — hardworking folks who farm other people's land, scraping and saving until they can afford a few acres of their own.
The wave of Latino immigration that brought my Mexican neighbors north is a ray of hope in farm country, one of the first in many years. Since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, many rural counties have been losing people. Between 1990 and 2000, Latino immigrants kept more than 100 rural counties from suffering that fate, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Latinos are also the fastest-growing group among farmers, whose numbers have declined for decades.
The United States can thank its own trade policies for the rising number of immigrant farmers. As heavy U.S. farm subsidies flood Mexican markets with cheap corn, farmers there earn less for their corn. Many have no choice but to seek another job. And many learn the hard way that "free trade" agreements open borders to wealth — freeing it to go wherever it can multiply the quickest — but not to the people impoverished by that process.
Combining an agricultural policy that ruins Mexico's farmers with immigration laws that keep them from rescuing the United States' own rural economies makes little sense and less justice. That lack is plain in the modern-day Minutemen's un-neighborly attitudes, and in the Draconian immigration bill that recently divided the Senate. The bill would put up a new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, use police and military troops to patrol it and make illegal immigration a felony.
The farming way of life is tough, rewarding and vanishing. I welcome people — any people —who will keep it going, and I want immigration policies that don't get in their way. The National Immigrant Farming Initiative has an approach I like, investing in immigrant farmers' contributions to U.S. agriculture with training, translation and the chance to network with other farmers.
Wind the clock back far enough, and we all are newcomers. However different our origins, the same economic winds blew my neighbors and me into the little stretch of country we share. Like it or not, we're neighbors, and that fact carries certain obligations — of fairness and decency, of neighborliness. We ignore those obligations of fairness and decency, of neighborliness, only at the peril of losing community, democracy and even freedom itself.