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Cutting Edges: Theology and the Undocumented Worker

PH09_Faculty_Nancy_Bedford_2_9-09By Dr. Nancy Bedford, the Georgia Harkness Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.


Each fall my family and I put the community garden plot we tend in Evanston to rest for the winter under its coverlet of straw; each spring we look forward to planting season and to the wonderful vegetables of the Midwestern summer. Our adventures in gardening are pleasurable, yet ultimately optional, as our food supply does not depend on their success. It is different for the migrant farm workers in the United States who care for the many crops, especially fruits and vegetables, that continue to be human-labor intensive. Such workers live precariously, anonymously, often exposed to toxic chemicals, moving from place to place. Without their backbreaking work, our food supply would be decimated.

Only about one in ten farm workers in the United States are U.S. citizens, and an overwhelming majority of them are undocumented, with most of them hailing from Mexico and Central America. Nearly three- fourths of farm workers make under $10,000 per year and ironically, the profit levels of agribusiness have increased greatly since the implementation of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994. Meanwhile millions of small farmers in Mexico have been forced off their lands, and family farmers in the United States and Canada have struggled to stay afloat.

Undocumented workers, especially those from Latin America, have recently become the target of rhetorical and physical attacks. They have become scapegoats for the troubles facing the United States and accused of being a threat to security, though actually food security would be compromised without their labor. They are told “go back home,” without consideration of the structural reasons why they become migrants. Migrant farm workers often banded together in families and moved with the crops. When the border between Mexico and the U.S. was less militarized and more porous, many cycled in and out of Mexico with the seasons. Lately many have found themselves locked into a precarious undocumented existence in the United States in order to be able to continue to work in U.S. fields.

What is the role of theology in the face of the smoke and mirrors that obscure the discussion of undocumented migration in this country? Theology should ask: Where does the bread – and by extension the produce – we eat at the Lord’s Table and elsewhere actually come from? What are the human and natural costs involved in producing it? Why are the migrant farm workers, upon whose labor we all depend, treated as if they were not supposed to exist or to be present at all in the country? At its best, theology brings a capacity to discern and to articulate the “truth of reality” in a society easily distracted by trivialities.

There are a number of concrete ways to practice a public theology that takes seriously the reality of migrant farm workers. It can be as specific as an analysis of how the food habits within a congregation are related to migrant farm worker conditions, or as far-reaching as developing comprehensive immigration reform and legislation directed specifically to the situation of migrant farm workers.

Such legislation would be helpful, but it would not resolve the deeper questions of justice that haunt us. A public theology needs to hammer away at the perverse logic that depicts undocumented migrants as potential “terrorists” and allows the short-term financial gain of a few to shape agricultural, ecological, and migration policies. “Common sense” about building walls and scape-goating undocumented Latinos and Latinas should be decried as contrary to the good news of the gospel, according to which Christ came to knock down walls of separation, not to build them up according to an economy of fear. It may well be that in taking this kind of stance theology will be accused by some of naiveté or even treacherousness, but perhaps the time has come to take such accusations in stride: God is no respecter of borders.


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