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July 10, 2010

Assuming They’re “Illegals”

Accompanying a NYT story about the Administration using employment audits to crack down on employers for hiring undocumented workers, the photo does a rare thing, both perceptually and editorially. If the knee-jerk tendency, looking at a bus load of migrant workers, is to assume an Hispanic farm worker is an “illegal,” the picture encourages us to consider the circumstances of each individual after the caption emphasizes this is a bus full of “guest workers” (or men with legal status) as opposed to “undocumented workers” (or “illegals”) they are there to replace.

Not that guest workers aren’t even more vulnerable and frequently victimized, but the point here has to do with perception, and the function and sophistication of media images. Although this photo hardly packs any of the personal and emotional punch of this eloquent image the NYT published and the BAG examined in ‘08, it does hint, at least, at the critically need — especially, with all the hate being stirred by  the Arizona law — to actually get beyond pure emotional arguments and blind stereotyping.

  • Wayne Dickson

    I’m glad you avoided the poisonous term “alien,” Michael. As soon as that word appears, Sigourney Weaver’s movies cloud everyone’s vision.

    I was born and reared in Miami, and I live now in Central Florida. Migrant workers (some of whom have settled) harvest our fruit, vegetables, and ferns. They have begun in basic ways to organize, but they are still terribly exploited.

    That’s what I envision every time I think of a fast food sandwich or see a produce department at our grocery store. Consumers pay a few cents less per unit or pound of peppers, and for a tomato-laden (health-destroying) sandwich. Persons like the men in this photo sacrifice themselves to support their families.

    And, of course, to permit the rest or us to keep our fingernails clean and save our pennies toward admission to the next blockbuster movie.

  • jonst

    Whip up that guilt Wayne, whip up that guilt. You’re breakin my heart.

  • Connecticut Man1

    “men with legal status”

    Men (and women) with real “legal status” would have all of the protections of the law like minimum wage, healthcare, and other benefits of American society. This is building a non-citizen slave labor force and giving it the fringe appearance of being legal and moral. All because the people hiring them refuse to pay what the market would honestly demand to fill those jobs with Americans that have “full citizenship”.

    At least the frame is “less dehumanizing” than the right wing frame, right?

    Not kicking you BUT think about it.

    • Michael Shaw


      I agree with you which is why I emphasized the exploited status of the “guest laborer” in the post. The point is to build more specificity into the discussion so that politicians, photo editors and news stories are forced to be more accountable in describing and representing the status of migrants, even if just for less worse.

    • cmac

      I’d like to believe there’s a way to structure a guest worker program so that it doesn’t exploit the workers. I live in Southern California, where almost every other person has a Spanish surname. Many (not most, no matter what your crazy auntie maintains!) are undocumented. One of the big differences between those with papers and those without is that the ‘withs’ can go home to visit. The ‘withouts’ don’t dare.

      Is it inconceivable that there are foreign workers who love their own countries, but can’t find a living wage there? Who might like to work here without becoming citizens of this country?

      I’d jump at the opportunity to work in Europe. I’d prefer to keep my American citizenship, though. Good or bad, right or wrong, this is still my home. Why would everybody else in the world feel differently about their home countries?

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