The children of Florida's migrant farmworkers live a particularly rugged life. Their impoverished parents spend winters here, as long as they can find work among the tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, peppers and melons. Then they head north every spring, to harvest sweet potatoes, blueberries and tomatoes in the Carolinas, cucumbers in the Midwest, apples and cherries in the Northeast.
The migration is particularly hazardous this year, thanks to politics.
Last month, a family served by one of our child care centers set off for Ohio. They had heard frightening news about Georgia, and decided to drive through Georgia at night. They didn't make it that far.
After midnight, a Florida state trooper stopped their van on Interstate 75, alleging its headlights were dim. A search of the van turned up false identification papers that undocumented immigrants must use to obtain work here. After several hours on the shoulder of I-75, the parents were jailed for a week in Gainesville.
Their sons — English-speaking American citizens ages 5 and 7 — were whisked away to foster care.
The state of Florida was protecting us from — what?
Farm jobs stolen from U.S.-born workers? Latino farmworkers bring picking skills honed since adolescence. They are acclimated to the miseries of the fields. Few Americans have learned this work, and none are raised for it. Witness the desperate search for native-born pickers in Georgia, where the new immigration crackdown scared away a tenth of all farmworkers before it even took effect.
Criminals? These parents are tireless workers and regular churchgoers in the farm community of Wimauma. They have been active, responsible parents at our Beth-El Child Development Center. They are "illegal" immigrants because: (1) They sought to work their way out of poverty; and (2) U.S. law since 1964 has made it virtually impossible for unskilled workers to legally enter the United States, even though our economy requires millions of them.
The American story is a parade of immigrants who arrived poor, worked hard and assimilated successfully. They too were scorned at first, and that worsened whenever the economy weakened.
But never in my life have politicians exploited this discord as they do today. For the sake of votes, a swelling tide of hate is engulfing immigrants.
In writing this, I'm sure I invite this hate on to myself and my organization. But it's time for people of conscience to speak up. Some of the ugliest stains on our nation's history resulted when one great swath of society declared open season on another. That's what I feel happening today.
The only rational solution is for Congress to create a method through which immigrants can register, pay penalties, learn English and work legally.
Meanwhile, the Wimauma parents are free on $1,000 bail each, charged with a package of felonies. They have driven to Maryland, which seemed to be friendlier.
But the little U.S. citizens in the family have been traumatized by their own government. Returned to their mother, they covet her embrace. Both panic at the sight of a police car. And the 7-year-old is afraid to be anywhere near an interstate highway.
Barbara Mainster is executive director of Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which operates child care centers for the rural poor in 21 Florida counties.