In order to escape crushing poverty caused by unjust economic structures and environmental degradation, ten people decide to leave their homes together in the hope of finding seasonal employment in California picking fruit and vegetables. Their journey takes them across a thousand miles of desert. Along the way, two members of the group die.
On arriving in California, the eight survivors encounter hostility from the locals. The Californians, some of whom are recent arrivals themselves, worry about being overrun by hordes of immigrants whose willingness to live and work in dehumanizing conditions calls into question their humanity. The immigrants are subjected to economic exploitation by their employers, harassment by the authorities, and violence at the hands of vigilantes. In the end, one of them decides to become a labor organizer in an effort to improve the lives of the many people who, like his own family, have come to California in the hope of finding a better life.
Is this the life story of Cesar Chavez? It could be, I suppose, but it also happens to be the plot line of The Grapes of Wrath an Academy Award-winning film I watched on DVD last night. John Ford’s film adaptation of the novel by John Steinbeck (starring Henry Fonda) depicts the Joad family’s migration from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. Today, in contrast, we would expect to see, perhaps, the Ruiz or Camacho family’s migration from Oaxaca to California.
There are some obvious differences between the Joad family's story and the stories of the many Mexican and Central American families that have come to the United States as economic refugees. The most important of the differences is the existence of an international border that is part of the journey in the latter case. But the difference between the state borders that Okies crossed while fleeing the Dust Bowl and the international borders that Latinos cross today to reach California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas may not be as significant as most people think. The Joads were stopped at state borders, primarily for agricultural inspections. (I remember as a boy being stopped at an agricultural inspection station on the border separating Texas and Arkansas and being asked--or hearing my father being asked--whether we were bringing any cotton into Arkansas.) By and large, states aren't doing much to protect their borders any more.
Internationally, borders are also becoming less significant. The United States has done a great deal to promote the free flow of capital, goods, and services across international borders. The free flow of labor has been important to globalization as well, but when it comes to the movement of people across borders, our government's free-market principles go out the window. It's hard, though, to tell those who want to see more consumer goods flowing across borders that those borders don't matter while simultaneously telling those who merely want an opportunity to cross a border in order to feed their children that those borders do matter.
With President Bush set to make a major address to the nation on the subject of immigration on Monday night, it’s not a bad time to see (or, better yet, read) The Grapes of Wrath.
(Incidentally, if you want to see a film about immigration that is currently in release, Stephen Colbert claims that Over the Hedge fills the bill. I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on Colbert's assertion that it is a thinly disguised allegory of the current immigration debate.)