On very skilled “unskilled” workers

Throughout the immigration reform debate one of the issues that always jared me was the distinction that legislators and activists always made between “skilled” and “unskilled” workers. The distinction was clear: “skilled” workers were those (usually) with university degrees, working in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math); “unskilled”, on the other hand, were those (often) without university degrees, working in fields such as agriculture, services and some construction. As the debate unfolded it became clear that both kinds of immigrant workers are needed in the United States for different reasons: the former to develop the technological capacity necessary to remain a post-industrial power; the latter to literally feed us, take care of our families, households, and many other aspects of our lives. Different lines of work, each with its own skill sets.

The recognition of both of these skill sets is important; so important that in the case of the “unskilled” agricultural workers, that the Senate bill provides for a special, faster path to permanent residence and citizenship. The skills that agricultural workers bring to their work is so crucial and unique that states that have attempted to intimidate undocumented immigrants away have faced unintended consequences. In Alabama, a 2011 crackdown on undocumented workers, forcing many away from the state, created a major farming crisis, while The Produce News reported “disastrous effects on agriculture” in Georgia caused by similar policies. In Alabama, efforts to replace these agricultural workers with US citizens and documented residents were unsuccessful. According to Jerry Spencer, founder and CEO of the Grow Alabama Foundation, “resident Americans lack the physical stamina and the mental toughness to see the job through.” I do not necessarily agree with such broad generalizations, and one must consider that many are unwilling to do such hard work under substandard wage and benefits conditions, but we must also recognize that farm work requires experience and skill. As Charlene Turczyn, a Central Illinois farmer, wrote in a 2012 Washington Post editorial calling for streamlining migrant farm worker regulations, “it’s difficult to find U.S. workers with farming skills.”

Ironically, as the “Gang of 8” was working on the language that would engrain in our minds the idea that agricultural workers are “unskilled”, Dodge was airing its successful Superbowl commercial, celebrating American farmers’ skills and perseverance.


Playing with the traditional American notion of farmers as the makers of our heartland, this ad moved the discussion of agricultural work away from the “unskilled” into a whole new world. Yet the world of this commercial, “100% Americana” according to Latino Rebels, seemed to ignore the fact that “the majority (72%) of all farmworkers were foreign born, with 68 percent of all farmworkers [being] born in Mexico.” The commercial gave the impression that only a particular ethnicity had commendable virtues. The reaction was swift, and within a few days Cuéntame and other groups produced alternative videos, like this one, giving the same dignified face to the many Latino (often migrant) workers who tend our harvests and other agricultural products.


Beyond their representation in Cuéntame’s video, many of the supposedly “unskilled” workers that migrate to the United States have creativity, drive, skills and entrepreneurial spirit that, under proper circumstances, allows them to thrive. I recently met an undocumented Mexican gardner in Virginia who has incorporated a company, purchased vans, has a web presence and, ironically, now has a series of documented “guest worker” employees. A darker side of this creative spirit is evident in “El purgatorio de los deportados”, a very strong and disturbing documentary about the lives of deported migrants making a living in El Bordo de Tijuana. Despite the violence and drug addiction product of their marginalization, the way people like Delfino López Vásquez (a deported successful gardner, 4:52) and Avimael Martínez (a deported mechanic who had opened his own body shop, 7:57), are testament to the resiliency, creativity and skills of these migrants.

Domestic workers also fall under the same category of “unskilled” labor. Ironically, just like we depend on ignored agricultural workers to produce our food, domestic workers are often in charge not only of cleaning our households, but also of taking care of our children, elderly and frail as this powerful story from PRI The World’s Global Nation project reveals. Their series dedicated to this “invisible workforce” reveals ways in which immigrant domestic workers have developed creative ways to settle disputes and find alternative lending circles to develop credit histories when banking services aren’t available, once again revealing initiative and great skills.

Outside of the domestic sphere, service workers (another group classified as “unskilled”) have shown their organizational skills, leading important movements, such as the Justice for Janitors campaigns, that have placed them at the vanguard of today’s labor movement in the United States. Along similar lines, Unite Here, a labor union that has been leading a global boycott of the Hyatt hotel chain has recently announced an end to their labor dispute, proving their capacity to organize and negotiate on an equal footing with major corporations.

Labor organization takes us back to agricultural workers, who played a central role in the struggle for Latin@ civil rights. It was, after all, the United Farm Workers which became the icon for the Chican@ movement.


And this movement, combined with the artistic skills of people like Luis Valdez, left us the cultural legacy of institutions like the Teatro Campesino which continues producing a new repertoire to this day. Some of its now classic productions, like “Los vendidos” are still being represented in adaptations to address our current context as this one produced by UCSD students in 2010. (I do not embed the video from the previous link due to copyright reasons, but I highly recommend visiting the site to see an early production of the play produced by the Teatro Campesino itself.)


With all this in mind, I insist that we must rethink our use of the word “unskilled” to speak about this highly skilled group of workers.