US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On Friday, the Indianapolis Star posted a political cartoon mocking President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. “Thanks to the president’s immigration order, we’ll be having extra guests this Thanksgiving,” a turkey-toting father announces to his gathered (white) family as three (brown) immigrants hoist themselves through a nearby window. The Star eventually pulled the cartoon and apologized, saying that while the cartoonist “did not intend to be racially insensitive in his attempt to express his strong views about President Barack Obama's decision … the depictions in this case were inappropriate.”

Racism was part of the cartoon’s problem, but not its only one. Depicting undocumented immigrants as interlopers in the Thanksgiving feast obscures the essential role they play in making the holiday’s bounty possible.

The most poignant portrayal of the connection between labor and the Thanksgiving meal was made over half a century ago. On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, Americans still recovering from the previous day’s feast tuned into CBS Reports, a TV documentary hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Opening on a day-labor market in Belle Glade, Florida, the documentary followed the deeply impoverished families that picked the nation’s produce. Laborers were packed into trucks more tightly and carelessly than the product they harvested. “Workers in the sweatshop of the soil,” Murrow called them, “the under-protected, the undereducated, the under-clothed, the underfed.”

The timing of the documentary, called “Harvest of Shame,” was purposeful. “We present this report on Thanksgiving,” Murrow explained, “because were it not for the labor of the people you are going to meet, you might not starve, but your table would not be laden with the luxuries that we have all come to regard as essentials.” The producer said the documentary was meant “to shock the consciousness of the nation,” and it did. Along with Michael Harrington’s book "The Other America," “Harvest of Shame” has been credited with sparking the War on Poverty.

“Harvest of Shame” focused almost entirely on the East Coast. The migrant laborers, mostly southern blacks and Appalachian whites, were explicitly identified as American citizens. Latino migrants were largely invisible, appearing only once in the form of “foreign workers,” driving wages down for Americans.

But hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in 1960 were Latino, working legally in the United States through the bracero program for temporary laborers. It was exploitative, low-waged work that the program’s director deemed “nothing short of legalized slavery.” It was finally ended in 1964.

The end of the bracero program coincided with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the racist quota system put in place in the 1920s. Yet while it liberalized migration to the U.S. for much of the world, it also instituted the first quotas for immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Almost overnight, the U.S. had slammed shut the two most important entryways for Latin Americans.

Yet produce growers still sought the low-income labor the bracero program had provided, and migrants still sought seasonal work in American fields. So migrants, now unauthorized, continued to cross the border. And since the border was increasingly policed, they stayed in the United States rather than risk being caught at the crossing. The new immigration policies, according to a 2012 study by Princeton University’s Douglas S. Massey and Karen A. Pren, sent the population of undocumented Latin American immigrants from "near zero" in 1965 to 9.6 million in 2008.

In that time, undocumented workers have continued to play a vital role in the American economy, particularly in the agricultural economy. Like the migrant workers in Murrow’s documentary, they contribute to the country’s economic and cultural life, though the threat of deportation (now lifted for millions of immigrants) means they are often exploited and forced to live in the shadows.

A teacher in “Harvest of Shame” said of the migrant students in her classroom, “I think maybe I feel a bit of responsibility toward these children because I realize we here in New Jersey reap the benefits of their parents’ labor, and the children are suffering because their parents are here doing this.” As Americans sit down for their Thanksgiving meals (where, no doubt, more than a few debates will break out about the best options for immigration reform), they should likewise remember the debt they owe these workers and their families.

This article originally appeared in US News & World Report.