Sam Burnham, Curator
You've probably seen the Deportation Bus by now. While you may not have seen it in person you've likely seen a Michael Williams ad or a news story about the school bus turned campaign slogan that is making the round in the Peach State. The gray and white bus is labeled "Follow Me To Mexico" and "Warning: Murderers, Rapists, Kidnappers, Child Molestors (sic), and Other Criminals on Board." It is the metaphor that the gubernatorial candidate has hatched to represent his take on illegal immigration.
And I get it. It is proven that there is some criminal activity among the illegal population in the state. There is some gang activity. There have been murders and rapes. There have been DUIs that led to serious injuries and deaths. And people are not being unreasonable to believe that a total disregard for immigration law hints at lawlessness. We should enforce our laws strictly and consistently. We should have zero tolerance for serious crimes and property damage from illegal aliens. I'll not dispute that for one minute.
But the Deportation Bus is not the only bus in this conversation. There are other buses involved. In the next month or so, in the fields of Crisp County, people will line up and begin cutting watermelons. They'll pass them from person to person until they arrive and a specially customized bus. The top is cropped off save what provides shade to the driver. the seats are removed to form a makeshift truck bed as high as the bottoms of the windows. They pile it slap full to the brim with watermelons and then it pulls off to the market while a newly returned and empty bus pulls up to take its place. And they relay the buses all day. It is not unusual to be following one, have one behind you and have several of them pass you in a row heading the other direction. That's a typical Cordele Rush Hour, except it lasts all day.
The trick is, the workers in the fields are most likely illegal aliens. Many of them have likely come to the area after the peach or onion harvests, or maybe even both. These aren't jobs that machines can do. But they are vital jobs to our state. Agriculture is our top industry. We are the Peach State. Georgia is, by law, the only place where Vidalia Onions can be grown. Crisp County is known as the Watermelon Capital of the World. It is more than a business, this is who we are as a state.
Let's be honest for a minute. These aren't "American jobs" being "stolen." You're not about to work all day picking watermelons in the South Georgia sunshine. I know I'm not. It's a labor intensive, sweaty, hot, low-paying job. No one is getting rich off the watermelons. Despite being the number one producer of watermelons, Crisp County is the poorest in the state. And if you see the grocery store prices on a water melon and then you see the labor and transport involved, you see what the problem is. If you want to pay $15 for a watermelon, then the farmers can pay the harvesters more. But you don't want to pay $15 for a watermelon any more than you want to spend all day picking watermelons in the hot Georgia sunshine. I know I don't.
Consider this. You're not going to find a bunch of murderous gangsters in the fields. They don't want to be out there either. They can make more money selling drugs, pimping prostitutes, robbing people, kidnapping for ransom, whatever gangsters do. A person who spends all day picking watermelons is going to go home, eat dinner, spend some time with their family, and go to bed. They don't have a lot of time for foolishness. They have to spend all day tomorrow filling old school buses with watermelons. These are typically honest, hardworking people who took a chance at a better life. And the may not even want to stay here forever. They understand the Economy of Place, they love their homes and want to go back. But by working in our fields they can earn a better life back there.
I'm a third generation American on one branch of the family. My great-grandparents fled the onset of communism in Eastern Europe in the latter days of World War I. They went through Ellis Island, completely legal and by the books. So I understand the desire to flee. But I also understand the need to have it done legally. What we don't have in place is a true and functional guest worker program where farmers can go through legal channels to hire crews to pick crops. Such a program would allow for background checks, medical screenings, or other safety measures that would ensure that the workers are the sort of people we want to come in. The who;e process could be above the table. Clean and legal labor for the farmers who need it. And workers could follow the seasonal work as the year progresses. That's really a win-win for everyone.
So let's save the deportation hyperbole for those who really do fit the descriptions on that bus. Let's find a way to allow some honest dads to take care of their families and probably help their hometown economy in the process. Let's be strict about our laws but let's pass wise laws to be strict about. Let's keep those watermelon buses rolling. It's getting to be summertime. And it is tough to beat a cool slice of watermelon on a hot summer day.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire