Part of the work put in by John Steinbeck in preparation for writing The Grapes of Wrath was a series of articles published in the San Francisco News in October 1936. He called it The Harvest Gypsies, and in it he described the exodus of poor farm people from the Dust Bowl areas into California, where they filled key positions of seasonal labor in the agricultural economy.
For decades prior, those positions had been filled by importations of foreigners—from China, Japan, and the Philippines. Those foreign workers, “drawn from a peon class,” as Steinbeck crudely but accurately puts it, were gravely mistreated. That should not have been possible with the Dust Bowl refugees. “It should be understood,” Steinbeck argues, “that with this new race the old methods of repression, of starvation wages, of jailing, beating and intimidation are not going to work; these are American people.”
Steinbeck was writing hopefully rather than accurately. The Harvest Gypsies is filled with just as much ruthlessness and predacity as its fictional cousin, The Grapes of Wrath. You see in Gypsies the same strikebreakers, the same heartless big-time growers. There’s that federal camp where the Joads lived briefly, in a kind of semi-socialist workers’ commune. There are jalopies on the highway, piled up Clampett-wise with families and their meager belongings.
There are stories of unshakeable tragedy. Children dying in squatters’ camps because there isn’t enough food, enough milk.
One family loses a child, and “[t]he father and mother now feel that paralyzed dullness with which the mind protects itself against too much sorrow and too much pain.” Grief makes the father a poor laborer: “He is no longer alert; he isn’t quick at piece-work, and he is not able to fight clear of the dullness that has settled on him.” This grief is a kind of deadliness. If the man can’t stay alert in the picking fields, he will fall behind, lose position, forfeit what little pay he’s able to earn. That will mean less food for his surviving children, and so the death of one child hastens the deaths of the others.
People who suffer like this fall easily, even naturally, into rage, into wrath. “Those to whom evil is done,” writes Auden, “Do evil in return.” The kind of deadliness suffered by those migrants is uncontainable and spreads. Steinbeck writes, “A man herded about, surrounded by armed guards, starved and forced to live in filth loses his dignity; that is, he loses his valid position in regard to society, and consequently, his whole ethics toward society.
“We regard this destruction of dignity, then, as one of the most regrettable results of the migrant’s life, since it does reduce his responsibility and does make him a sullen outcast who will strike at our Government in any way that occurs to him.”
He can hear it. He’s trying to make you hear it, too. The sound of tramping in the vineyards. Where the grapes of wrath are stored.
The same basic human drama at work when Oklahomans went into California during the Dust Bowl is going on today, with the migration of Latinos into the United States. In Oklahoma, we have been particularly incensed about this, both because of the (alleged) impact on the labor market, and the (alleged) rise in crime rates—two points Steinbeck addressed at length in The Harvest Gypsies and later in The Grapes of Wrath.
So I met with Ralph Shortey, a conservative Republican member of the Oklahoma State Senate from south Oklahoma City, who’s taken a leading role these last few years in the anti-illegal immigration cause. Senator Shortey agreed to meet me at Wholly Grounds Coffee Shop, in his district, a place where he conducts many of his meetings. The senator is a very tall man, with a strong build, and he has the black hair, round face, and pale brown skin of his Sioux heritage. Throughout our conversation, which lasted about an hour, he was cordial, intelligent, and willing to be challenged.
The same essential human drama at play in the migration of Oklahomans into California during the Dust Bowl is at work today, in the migration of Latinos into the United States.
“It seems to me,” I started out, “from reading things you’ve said, and things Representative [Randy] Terrell,  has said, that you both agree in your goal, which is to deter illegal immigrants from entering Oklahoma, and to drive out the ones who are already present. Is that fair?”
“Yes,” Shortey said. Primarily, he said, his motivation came down to employment. “You have a large immigrant population that works under a different set of rules than a citizen population. They can artificially lower wages. They make competition for those who hire illegals easier, and—”
“How do you mean ‘artificial’?” I asked. He argued that contractors who are willing to hire illegal immigrants as sub-contractors are essentially cheating to gain an unfair advantage.
“Isn’t that the free market at work?”
“It’s the free market when you’re operating within the confines of legality. And when everybody plays on the same playing field, yes, that’s the free market. But that’s not what illegal immigrants bring to it.”
“But isn’t that economic protectionism of one class of workers at the expense of the entire economy? It seems like these workers, because they can work for so much less, would lower prices overall, and isn’t that better for everybody?”
“When everybody makes more, you’re going to pay more for goods and services—but you’re also making more.”
“So,” I asked, “you’d be willing to accept a trade-off, in all goods and services becoming more expensive, but more people having more money in their pockets?”
“It’s a trickle-up, I guess, way of looking at it. Everybody benefits from that.”
We then talked about crime, which I could tell was a very dicey issue for the senator. In his speeches, he’s drawn a clear link between illegal immigration and crime, and when I asked him about that, he said, “Yeah, I think in areas where you see large illegal immigrant populations you’ll see crime increase.”
“See, what I’m reading is the exact opposite,” I said. “That first-generation immigrants in this country are significantly less likely to commit crimes than native-born people.”
“Well, that might be true,” Shortey said. “What I’m saying is—I’m not saying it’s indicative of the people themselves who are coming here—it’s indicative of the areas they inhabit.”
“What I’ve read,” I said,  “is that first-generation immigrants in this country, both legal and illegal, are significantly less likely to commit crimes. Second-generation immigrants—their crime rate rises to the level of the native-born population.”
Shortey seemed to agree this was true and attributed the normalization of second-generation crime rates to those young people “having no future,” because their parents had entered the country illegally. That still didn’t address the split between what Shortey had said, about illegal immigration contributing to a rise in crime, and the evidence I had cited, which pointed to the exact opposite conclusion
Home is such a frail thing anyway, and it can be terrible, and it can be heavenly, and it never lasts long.
“What I’m saying,” Shortey said, “is that if it were more difficult for an illegal immigrant to traffic themselves into our state, it would be that much more difficult for a gang, for an illegal gang syndicate, to traffic drugs into our state.”
“So it’s a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of thing.”
That kind of stumped me. It seemed the political benefit of saying “illegal immigration causes crime” would be to scare people by linking the two problems. That’s why I said the subject was dicey for Senator Shortey: I thought he needed to suggest the link if for no other reason than to get the most political play out of it. But, this comes dangerously close to implying an inherent criminality in the Latino population, which is both demonstrably untrue,  and a morally repugnant thing to say. Shortey seemed very aware of this problem as we spoke.
“I don’t feel comfortable with my children playing outside, because south Oklahoma City has become a dangerous place. But to be quite honest with you, I don’t know that there is any correlation between an illegal immigrant population—as the individual committing those crimes—”
“It would be stunning,” I said, “if there was a link. We’re talking about a whole population. We would be talking about a link between race and crime.”
“Right. And most of the people don’t come here to commit crime, they come here to earn a living, stay in the shadows, not call any attention to themselves… ”
“That’s probably the reason why so few of them commit crimes,” I said. “They’ve risked so much to get here already.”
“Right. And they don’t want to be deported. They don’t want to call attention to themselves.”
I asked him, if the crime rate rises among second-generation immigrants because they “have no future,” wouldn’t something like the DREAM Act,  be a better solution? He wasn’t sure, but he felt the DREAM Act raised a larger, philosophical problem: “There’s a border for a reason. It is not just some kind of a trade route line that determines this country from this country. This is the United States of America. We have a certain set of beliefs as Americans. We have a certain set of requirements as Americans. We expect our citizens to operate a certain way.”
“Over here,” I said, gesturing with my hands to create a kind of wall, trying to signify the idea of the border. “Over here, we believe certain things.”
“Absolutely,” the senator agreed.
But where do those lines come from? And should they matter that much? “There’s this big chunk of people,” I said, “in the southwestern part of the United States, all of that indigenous population that intermarried with the Spanish, stretched all the way from what’s now America through Central America and parts of South America, and they’ve been in this part of the world for forever—for a long, long time. Very similar to indigenous populations in North America who intermarried with the British. But the lines get moved, by forces of history, and people get left out in the cold.”
“That’s very true,” Shortey said thoughtfully; then he got right back on message. “This is interesting you brought that up, because being Native American, of course, we saw a big immigration issue back about 300–400 years ago. And we actually accepted the immigrants at the beginning, and now look at us. Whether or not we think it’s fair, whether or not we think it’s just, life dealt you a bad hand, or whatever—there is a border. And there’s a border for a reason.”
Ralph Shortey and I agreed on one thing: The presence of illegal immigrants in the United States reduces the overall cost of goods and services. (He would prefer those costs to rise if it meant more legal citizens had more money in their pockets.)
Whether Shortey’s hypothetical economy would be preferable to the one we actually live in is an open question. There can be no doubt, though, that the low, low prices we Americans enjoy depend, in part, on a population of undocumented workers, though we do not give them any credit for this. As good as things are, because of them, we somehow feel things would be even better, without them.
Steinbeck noticed the same thing, in the 1930s:
“[I]n California, we find a curious attitude toward a group that makes our agriculture successful. The migrants are needed, and they are hated.”
It’s not just the stinginess of pay or the brutal conditions of life that stoke wrath in the worker. It’s the failure to give due respect to the people who bend their backs to make our lives more comfortable. And wrath is more than just anger. There’s righteousness to it, and a sense of grave injustice—but without the assurance that righteousness always gets rewarded, or injustice always corrected.
Sometimes all you can do with wrath is stand witness. To be there, with Tom Joad: around in the dark, wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat.
1. Author and House sponsor of “The Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007,” and Senator Shorty’s predecessor, if you will, as leader of the anti-illegal immigration cause in Oklahoma.
2. I was referring to a story published by Pew Research Center on October 15, 2013, by Rich Morin, titled “Crime rises among second-generation immigrants as they assimilate.”
3. See n. 2 supra.
4. Referring to the bill, first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001 by Dick Durban and Orrin Hatch, which would provide conditional permanent residency to qualifying illegal aliens who arrived in the United States as minors.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 8, on April 15, 2014.