There’s a town about an hour south of Ann Arbor, almost at the Ohio border, called Blissfield. It’s a small farming community like hundreds of others in Michigan and across the country. You’ve never heard of this place, and there’s really no reason you should have. But Blissfield, Michigan has a dirty little secret.
You wouldn’t know it if you were just passing through on the highway. Even if you took that exit, perhaps to get gas or to hit the McDonalds, and wandered further down the road than normal, you wouldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. Endless fields of corn give way to apple orchards, which are fleetingly obstructed by gas stations, diners and farmhouses. Fields of peppers are intertwined with turquoise cabbage patches, all in the shadow of magnificent red barnhouses and other small white buildings that seems to blend in almost seamlessly.
Almost. Upon a moment’s reflection though, those white buildings, neatly tucked in around the fields and the road, do stand out. I wondered what those buildings were when I first came there. But I already knew the answer — it’s why I made my trip to Blissfield with Farm Worker Legal Aid in the first place. Those buildings are barracks.
In those buildings — the largest of which were designed to hold about 50 people — were crammed nearly twice that many migrant farm workers. Entire families were here, sometimes eight people or more living in a room no larger than a college dorm room. They work long hours as long as there is work to be done and then they move on. In a single year, they may go from Florida to Georgia to Michigan several times to till, plant, weed, trim and ultimately harvest.
We visited during the daytime, so most of the workers were out in the fields. We did get to walk through some of the housing units and chat with those that remained behind — either to take care of the children or because there simply wasn’t enough work to be done that day.
They mostly spoke Spanish, so we communicated through translators. We asked them questions like how they liked Michigan and how their working and living conditions, compared to other states. These were the right questions, but something was missing.
You see, this isn’t your typical workers’ rights situation. If there were violations, these migrants wouldn’t know. They’ve never known fair conditions so anything better than the absolute worst must seem like a relief. They make a minimum wage, have their housing paid for and have plenty of laws to protect them. But of course it’s never that simple.
The law requires running water, but some workers we talked to were quite amused by that concept. The law regulates how many people can live in those housing units, but in most instances we found about twice the limit crammed in there. The law requires that the workers get minimum wage, but they are often paid by how much they do (by the bushel during harvest, for instance) and not by the hour, making it nearly impossible to discern if they are being compensated fairly.
An intern at Farm Worker Legal Aid — a group that does exactly what its name suggests — told me that Michigan generally has been better about migrant worker rights than other states. But with the state’s budget crunch, resources for migrant workers are being scaled back. Such services are of course the first to go, considering migrant workers won’t be around to avenge their rights at the ballot box.
And so that leaves the rest of us to decide their rights for them. The first step of course is to know that this situation exists.
But beyond knowledge, we need accurate perception. Surely there are those who would wave their fists and demand that these migrants be sent back to where they came from. Perhaps some of them are illegal immigrants, though some certainly were not. But such ignorantly nativist outrage ignores an important truth: These workers use up literally no resources while doing necessary, productive jobs that others simply would not do under those conditions.
Seeing migrant workers living and working so close to Ann Arbor brings the immigration debate home. It’s clear that we need these people, and it’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.
Imran Syed can be reached at email@example.com.