Reproducing this here in its entirety because when I want to read it ten years hence, twitter will probably be gone… or at least the URL linking to this will be broken. So:
In light of what’s going on with #Dreamers, it’s time to talk about Japanese internment. Because the #DACA showdown is Japanese internment 2.0.
Japanese immigrants in the 19th & early 20th centuries came to the US in large part for manual farm labor in California. Sound familiar?
Japan had much more advanced horticulture than the US at that time, so these immigrants weren’t just bringing brute labor. They were bringing a lot of basic how-to’s of commercial farming that built the foundation for California’s success as an agricultural powerhouse today. Japanese immigrant farm laborers American Dream’d so hard, many families were able to save money to buy their own land and start farming for themselves. “The California Farm Bureau was quoted by The News, saying that Japanese farmers were responsible for 40 percent of all vegetables grown in the state, including nearly 100 percent of all tomatoes, celery, strawberries and peppers.” (San Francisco Museum)
The Central Valley used to be peppered with Japanese family farms. Not anymore. What happened to them?
WW2’s Japanese internment. Japanese internment was a land grab by white farmers. Full stop.
The initial call for Japanese internment came mere hours after the Pearl Harbor bombing, from the Salinas Valley Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association.
AKA, Japanese internment was initiated by the California farm lobby: “The average value/acre of all West Coast farms in 1940 was $37.94, whereas that of Japanese farms was $279.96… 3/4 acres of Japanese farm lands were devoted to actual crop production, whereas only 1/4 acres of all farm land in the areas was planted in crops.”
Check out those numbers. Japan’s farm traditions were based on maximizing use of space, so they made more $ per acre. That tends to drive up land prices. And rising land prices tend to make people whose farming skills can’t keep up feel very nervous. So. Japanese farmers’ success came from having tight management skills, and that threatened their white neighbors.
White farmers had a choice: level up their game, or play dirty.
Let me reiterate: given a choice between being good at their job and lobbying the gov’t to make their problems go away, US farmers chose the second option. This is a classic move that those in the farm industry will still recognize.
“We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do.”
-Austin E. Anson, Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association
They weren’t even trying to hide it. Japanese internment was about white good ol’ boys being jealous of successful immigrants. There was a downside though. Remember how Japanese American farmers were growing nearly half the country’s produce? And the US war strategy was “an army marches on its stomach, so we need super solid supply chains for food”? It turns out putting most of the country’s skilled farmers in jail … didn’t help with making food. Once internment started, food shortages quickly followed.
How did the US handle that misstep? Victory gardens! “Victory Gardens were the propagandistic answer to the chaos created by FDR’s roundup and imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in early 1942. (Cindy McNatt at the Orange County Register)” So yeah, victory gardens were less “plucky nation pitches in with the war effort” and more “oh wow we systematic racism-ed so hard that we punched a hole in the economy. Do we admit we the mistake and fix it? Nahhhh, let’s foist the consequences off on civilians.”
Like Japanese families in the early 20th century, a lot of US immigrant population today is families that came to work on farms. And they’ve been here just long enough to actually get established and really start building a life. The US was kind of ok with immigration as long as it was get in, work for really cheap, get out. But we’re at a demographic turning point where a critical mass of farm immigrant families have reached some upward mobility and established themselves en masse.
And here’s the part that most people don’t know, unless they work in some really specific parts of the farm economy: Most of the US thinks of “immigrant farm workers” as grunt labor. And yes, most of the brute force work on farms is done by Latinx immigrants. But 1st and 2nd generation Latinx immigrants are also the knowledge base in modern US agriculture.
I’m gonna tell you guys a secret. A lot US farmers don’t actually know that much about farming. They know a lot about writing checks to Latinx contractors, who know how to farm.
The US farm industry isn’t just dependent on Latinx immigrants for labor. They’re dependent on Latinx immigrants for knowing HOW to farm. How to manage a harvest, how to run a packinghouse, how to keep a fleet of farm vehicles running. And I bet you money that scares the hell out of a lot of white people. Not the farmers, funnily enough. The actual farmers tend to be a lot more at peace with it than the rest of the rural/suburban white population. (Don’t get me wrong, they still mostly voted for Trump. Even though they knew his immigration policies are deadly for farms. They vote for conservatives and just expect things to magically turn out immigration-friendly anyway.)
The thing is, farmers aren’t the influential voting bloc they used to be. The new wrinkle entering the immigration debate right now, IMO, is private prisons. Prison labor’s been used in the US for manufacturing for quite some time. But it’s making significant new inroads into farm labor. Especially now that it’s becoming harder for immigrants to work in the US, farms are turning to inmate contracts. Prisoners working on a farm is a little different from manufacturing. In manufacturing, folks are locked down in a building. It’s pretty easy to control your workers. But farming is outdoors and, nowadays, super mechanized. That means to get anything done, you have to be able to give someone tools or a tractor and have a reasonable expectation that they’ll use them for work. Instead of, say, murdering the foreman and running off. You also need people with farm work experience. Farm work is an art. You just don’t get productive labor out of stoners. I say this as someone who’s personally supervised convict farm crews made of people in for minor drug charges. It’s… just a mess all around.
So say you’re a private prisoner contractor who’s looking at farm labor deals. To keep those clients happy, you need a steady stream of nonviolent criminals who are also have farm work experience. Talkin out the side of my mouth here, but if I were them, I’d see crackdowns on migrant laborers as a fantastic business move. I might even press my congressmen to write & sponsor bills like this one. Immigrants don’t even have to commit crimes to become part of my workforce, I mean go to jail. Just be poor. Or not have their green card in their pocket during a traffic stop.
Anyway, that’s my best guess as to why the GOP can’t get itself together to support a bill that most Americans want. There are a lot of primary voters, and a lot of donors, who have a vested interest in criminalizing immigrants.
To connect this back to Japanese internment. Internment was pushed through by a small farm lobby that wanted the land under Japanese American family farms, sure. But they couldn’t have pulled it off w/o the rest of the country’s xenophobia. Today we have private prisons whose business models look like they just kinda might depend on everyone being ok with jailing immigrants for being immigrants.
And there’s enough butthurt white people with “economic anxiety” to make that happen. Maybe. It’s really encouraging how many people support #DACA. We still have the same ugly dynamics that brought Japanese internment to life. But we also have a lot of people today who know better.
Keep those calls to your reps coming, folks.
— Sarah Taber