Esquire magazine recently published an outstanding article about the strange concealment of the move of California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes’ family farm from California to the area around Sibley, Iowa. The article details how when the reporter visited the area, he was tailed by several people who turned out to be members of Devin Nunes’ family, and details the reason why there was such secrecy about the Nunes family farm: they were employing undocumented immigrants. But, in researching the story about the Nunes family farm and their secret, a bigger story emerged: the seemingly contradictory attitudes of the local population towards the many undocumented immigrants who were working in the area. The whole article is worth a read, so please click through. Here are a few snippets that stood out:
“Eighty percent of the Latino population out here in northwest Iowa is undocumented,” estimated one dairy farmer in the area who knows the Nunes family and often sees them while buying hay in nearby Rock Valley. “It would be great if we had enough unemployed Americans in northwest Iowa to milk the cows. But there’s just not. We have a very tight labor pool around here.”
There is massive political hypocrisy at the center of this: Trump’s and King’s rural-farm supporters embrace anti-immigrant politicians while employing undocumented immigrants. The greatest threat to Iowa dairy farmers, of course, is not the press. It’s Donald Trump.
“I’ve been there and bring illegal people,” the source said, asserting that the farm was aware of their status. “People come here and ask for work, so I send them over there.” When I asked how many people working at dairies in the area are documented citizens, the source laughed. “To be honest? None. One percent, maybe.”
The source added, “Who is going to go work in the dairy? Who? Tell me who? If people have papers, they are going to go to a good company where you can get benefits, you can get Social Security, you can get all the stuff. Who is going to go [work in the dairy] to make fourteen dollars an hour doing that thing without vacation time, without 401(k), without everything?”
The relationship between the Iowa dairy farmers and their undocumented employees is indeed fraught. I cringed at the way some of the dairy farmers talked about their “help.” When I asked one dairy farmer, who admitted many of the farm’s workers are undocumented but who also inexplicably claimed to be “very supportive of Trump” and “kind of in favor of his immigration laws,” what a solution would be, this farmer suggested a guest-worker program but compared the workers to farm animals. “It’s kind of like when you bought cattle out of South Dakota, or anyplace, you always had to have the brand inspected and you had to have the brand sheet when you hauled them across the state line,” the farmer said. “Well, what’s the difference? Why don’t they have to report to the city hall or county office and say we’re here working and everybody knows where they’re at?”
The overall theme that comes across from the many interviews in the article is that in this rural area of Northwest Iowa, many of the farmers, especially dairy farmers, are dependent upon cheap labor, most of which they can only find in the form of undocumented immigrants. These farmers have taken a protective, almost paternalistic attitude toward their undocumented laborers, but have continued to support and elect politicians who use undocumented immigrants as political scapegoats. The congressman for the Sibley area of Iowa is Steve King, a Republican who is perhaps the most anti-immigrant member of the United States Congress, a man who has reveled in his relationship with actual Austrian Nazis. The two Senators who represent Iowa are Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, each of whom voted against the Dream Act. And 79% of the votes cast in the Presidential election of 2016 from this area of Iowa were made for Donald Trump, as opposed to only 17% for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, of course, based his campaign on labeling undocumented immigrants as criminals and rapists, and promised to build a wall on the southern border.
So, why would these residents of an area so dependent upon undocumented immigrants for their economy then go and vote for politicians who demonize these same undocumented immigrants and vote against bills that would provide these undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship?
If some of the attitudes surrounding this contradiction sound familiar, it could be because some of the same types of attitudes prevailed in the southern slave states before the Civil War. In the Antebellum South, the economy was dependent on a source of low cost labor: slaves. Wikipedia gives a description of why cheap labor was so important to the economy of the Antebellum South. Similarities to the current situation in areas like Sibley, Iowa are bolded.
The plantation-era South saw large expansions in agriculture while manufacturing growth remained relatively slow. The southern economy was characterized by a low level of capital accumulation (largely labor-based) and a shortage of liquid capital, which, when aggravated by the need to concentrate on a few staples, the pervasive anti-industrial, and anti-urban ideology, and the reduction of southern banking, led to a South dependent on export trade. In contrast to the economies of the North and West, which relied primarily on their own domestic markets, because the southern domestic market consisted primarily of plantations, southern states imported sustenance commodities from the West and manufactured goods from the North.
The plantation system can be seen as the factory system applied to agriculture, with a concentration of labor under skilled management. But while the industrial manufacturing-based labor economy of the North was driven by growing demand, maintenance of the plantation economic system depended upon usage of crude labor that was both abundant and cheap.
The five major commodities of the southern agricultural economy were cotton, grain, tobacco, sugar, and rice, with the production of the leading cash crop, cotton, concentrated in the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana).
Of course, there are other industries besides farming in the United States that use cheap labor, like discount retail and fast food, and there are likely more undocumented immigrants in cities. But politicians elected by residents of cities typically are not anti-immigrant. And those industries, like the Northern economies of the 19th century United States, are more dependent upon domestic demand than they are dependent on cheap labor. A retailer can raise prices. A producer of a commodity is dependent on the price the commodity will fetch at market. An increase in wages for all Walmart workers or all McDonalds workers can and has been managed, without in any way endangering the viability of either business. Conversely, some farmers believe that an increase in wages could lead to their financial ruin, as was stated by a farmer in the Esquire article:
“There’s no dang way.” This was speculation, but here is the logic that informed it: Most workers start at fourteen or fifteen dollars an hour, the first farmer said. If dairies had to use legal labor, they would likely have to raise that to eighteen or twenty dollars, and many dairies wouldn’t survive. “People are going to go broke,” the farmer said. The story was similar in the poultry, meatpacking, and other agricultural industries in the area.
Another similarity to the attitudes of the Antebellum South is in the portrayal of both slaveholders and slaves from the time. Slaveholders often tried to portray themselves as paternalistic and protective of slaves. They argued that the best place for a slave to be was in the safe confines of a plantation:
Defenders of slavery argued that the institution was divine, and that it brought Christianity to the heathen from across the ocean. Slavery was, according to this argument, a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said, “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
Defenders of slavery argued that by comparison with the poor of Europe and the workers in the Northern states, that slaves were better cared for. They said that their owners would protect and assist them when they were sick and aged, unlike those who, once fired from their work, were left to fend helplessly for themselves.
And they argued that if slaves were allowed to leave the safety of the plantation, they would not know how to support themselves, leading to crime, bloodshed, and chaos:
Defenders of slavery argued that if all the slaves were freed, there would be widespread unemployment and chaos. This would lead to uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy.
The farmers of Northwest Iowa seemed to argue along the same lines, referring to the familial attitude farmers had toward their undocumented employees:
As bad as this paternalistic and exploitative system can be, Nelson and the dairy farmers insisted that most dairies are family-owned and -operated and that the workers, documented or not, often become part of the family. This somewhat clichéd view can be overblown and sometimes used to defend an unfair system, but the sentiment helped me understand Brenda Hoyer’s chilling warning to me at the Lantern. During her son’s wake, four Hispanic employees from their former dairy came to express their condolences. They had worked there so long that their children refer to her husband, Gene, as Grandpa.
While these same Northwest Iowa farmers created a familial attitude toward their own undocumented employees, they also didn’t seem to mind if the politicians they supported referred to undocumented immigrants as “rapists”, “murderers“, and “animals”.
He wasn’t surprised by the hostility. Think about the story from the family’s perspective, he told me: “They are immigrants and Devin is a very strong supporter of Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump wants to shut down all of the immigration, and here is his family benefiting from immigrant labor,” documented or not.
When I asked what would happen if ICE turned its attention to Sibley, the mayor shuddered. Anderson noted that he has never seen an ICE agent in the four years he’s been at his job. He didn’t seem eager to get to know any. “If they come in town, then we have to talk about it, find out what’s going on, why, whether to participate, and make sure our town’s not disrupted,” he said. I asked him what he thought of King’s view that all undocumented immigrants should be deported. He paused and said, diplomatically, “He has a right to his opinion.”
When I asked one dairy farmer, who admitted many of the farm’s workers are undocumented but who also inexplicably claimed to be “very supportive of Trump”
Another argument made by the Antebellum South, an argument you can still see from supporters of the Confederate Flag and Confederate Status, was the importance of tradition, embodied most of all by a yearning to maintain the status quo:
They pointed to the mob’s “rule of terror” during the French Revolution and argued for the continuation of the status quo, which was providing for affluence and stability for the slaveholding class and for all free people who enjoyed the bounty of the slave society.
Defenders of slavery argued that slavery had existed throughout history and was the natural state of mankind. The Greeks had slaves, the Romans had slaves, and the English had slavery until very recently.
Defenders of slavery noted that in the Bible, Abraham had slaves. They point to the Ten Commandments, noting that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, … nor his manservant, nor his maidservant.” In the New Testament, Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master, and, although slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, Jesus never spoke out against it.
The people of Northwest Iowa also seemed to be in favor, most of all, of a maintenance of the status quo. This appears evident both in their support for politicians who will not pass immigration bills that would give a path to citizenship for their undocumented workers, and in their evident nervousness that these politicians might be going too far with their anti-immigrant policies by bringing ICE into the area to raid their farms:
I asked Nelson what would happen, hypothetically, if ICE raided every dairy farm in the area tomorrow. “It would be a disaster for the dairies,” he said. “They would suddenly have nobody to milk or feed the cows. I don’t know what they would do.”
He had no interest in knowing what anyone’s immigration status was. “If I see something, I’m not going to report it to ICE,” he said. “It’s not my job.” He added, “That’s not to say that everybody in town that lives here is legal. We don’t go knocking door-to-door to say, ‘Are you, are you not?’ ”
According to someone who talked to him that day, Anthony Jr. allegedly said that he was hiring a lawyer and that he was convinced that his dairy would soon be raided by ICE.
This comparison between the attitudes of some of the people of Northwest Iowa with the attitudes of the people of the Antebellum South is in no way an attempt to smear the people of Northwest Iowa (it is not just Northwest Iowa, in any case – many rural, farming areas have tapped into the undocumented labor pool), nor is it in any way an attempt to belittle the obvious horror of slavery. Undocumented labor is not as horrifying as slavery. The people of Northwest Iowa are not running slave plantations. But, the status quo in this country is being maintained in part by the same sort of hypocrisy that was evident in the Antebellum South, and the root of this hypocrisy is the valuing of people solely for their labor, while not showing any willingness to reward their labor with basic rights that are conferred upon others. This is demeaning to these undocumented laborers in much the same way it was demeaning to slaves. If a person is valuable because of their labor, their value should be repaid in part by conferring upon them the same rights as everyone else. Our immigration system is broken. And this broken system is being used as a source of cheap labor. Maintaining the status quo is unfair to the labor market as a whole, as it is unfair to the laborers who are being forced to live in the shadows. While the comparison with slavery might seem harsh, the sooner the hypocrisy that allows this status quo to remain in place can be rooted out, the better. And maybe a harsh comparison is what is needed to do that.