The bitter, divisive, and at times racist dialogue about immigration status was especially striking when it came to the debate about The Dream Act in December. On the one hand, opponents of the Dream Act argued that it didn’t matter the circumstances involving young people who had been in this country for many years and were attending College or were in the military. If they didn’t have legal status, that is, if they had entered the country without papers even as an infant, that identified them as “illegals,” or, for some of the more virulent opponents, having actual criminal status. No exceptions, no context other than the absence of legal status and rights.
Proponents of the Dream Act countered that young people who were in the U.S. “illegally, but through no fault of their own” (that is, they were not part of making such a decision since they were so young) were ultimately de facto citizens since in fact they had grown up “American” and, as College students or members of the military, they were fulfilling an essential American purpose of striving to achieve and succeed. To not allow them to come out of the shadows and achieve eventual citizenship would be, according to UC Berkeley President Robert Birgeneau, “a terrible waste of young talent — talent that this country desperately needs.”
The Dream Act seemed such a modest change to the immigration debates, providing, its proponents hoped, a more human face, a narrative about young people who ought to be considered “American.” But does the notion of “talent that this country desperately needs” have to be limited to the focus on young people in higher education and the military? I would argue that it can be – and should be – an argument of those who advocate for a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable, more just, and more diverse food system. Immigrants and food are joined in the fields and at the plate; and they represent an essential connection for how the food system can be changed.
The relationship of immigrants to food has in fact long been a central part of the American experience. During the period of large scale Southern European immigration in the first decades of the 20th century, immigrants constituted a majority of the restaurant work force and a significant percentage of restaurant owners, given the working class and immigrant associations of restaurants during this period. Farming has also had deep immigrant roots in many of the farm belt regions where Scandinavians and Germans among other European settlers established farms and became part of the local regional culture.
Immigrants have also been an important part of the urban gardening history in the U.S. The presence of immigrant gardeners in the U.S. could be seen as part of the desire of immigrants displaced from their land, particularly those coming from rural communities where farming and gardening had been part of daily life, to recapture a connection back to the land. Writer Patricia Klindienst, who has chronicled the experiences of immigrant and ethnic gardeners, argues that “garden metaphors have always been used to describe the experience of migration.” Instead of associating immigrants as “transplants” similar to plants who have been removed and replanted, Klindienst suggests we understand the immigrant “as a gardener – a person who shapes the world rather than simply being shaped by it.” In the past couple of decades, as the ranks of both documented and undocumented immigrants have swelled in both city and countryside, immigrant gardeners have been able to renew small slivers of unused or abandoned land and have in the process come to constitute, along with immigrant farmers, the most rapidly growing group of food growers in the U.S..
The immigrant farmer numbers coincide with the renewed interest in food growing. New farms that have been established between 2003 and 2007 average about 200 acres in size and have a small revenue stream. Many of those new farmers are women, Hispanic and Asian immigrants. What’s also striking is how farming, for immigrants, connects to their food experience. These are not simply the immigrant farmers from Mexican states such as Oaxaca and Sinaloa, but they are also war-related or political refugees from places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, Burundi or Senegal, or economic refugees from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, Togo, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Ecuador or the Dominican Republic. A connection to the land, whether as farmers or backyard gardeners, has been for many of these immigrant growers part of their cultural and economic heritage.
And it’s also part of the continuing changes and diversity of that food experience. Perhaps what’s best about the American food experience has been its hybrid nature, its multiple and fusion-like food cuisine, whether in the tiny community ethnic (read immigrant) restaurants in Los Angeles and New York or the new Latino and Asian cuisines that are beginning to follow the path of immigrants settling in places like Nashville, Tennessee or Portland, Maine.
Perhaps most importantly, many of the new immigrants are part of the very fabric of the food system, whether the most exploited such as farmworkers or restaurant workers, or those helping identify the pathway towards a different type of food system such as the new immigrant farmers and gardeners. Immigrants are also engaged in some of the most innovative food justice groups, such as ALBA in Northern California, Communidad de Communidad in western Washington, and the National Immigrant Farming Initiative, for whom the connection between immigrants and food is at the heart of their agenda.
For those who are concerned about the food in our lives, immigration reform and immigration rights needs to equal reforming the food system and establishing the right to food.