After the Dream Act Defeat: Immigrants and Food | Civil Eats

After the Dream Act Defeat: Immigrants and Food

Proponents of The Dream Act argued in a debate this past December that young people who were in the U.S. “illegally, but through no fault of their own” (that is, they were not part of making such a decision since they were so young) should ultimately be de facto citizens since they had grown up “American” and were fulfilling an essential American purpose of striving to achieve and succeed, as college students or members of the military. To deny them eventual citizenship would be, according to UC Berkeley President Robert Birgeneau, “a terrible waste of young talent—talent that this country desperately needs.”

But does the notion of “talent that this country desperately needs” have to be limited to the focus on young people in higher education and the military? We would argue that it can be–and should be–an argument of those who advocate for a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable, more just, and more diverse food system. Immigrants and food are joined in the fields and at the plate; they represent an essential connection for how the food system can be changed.

The relationship of immigrants to food has long been a central part of the American experience. During the period of large scale Southern European immigration in the first decades of the 20th century, immigrants constituted a majority of the restaurant work force and a significant percentage of restaurant owners. Farming also had deep immigrant roots in many of the farm belt regions where Scandinavians and Germans, among other European settlers, established farms and became part of the local regional culture.

Immigrants have also been an important part of urban gardening history in the U.S. The desire of displaced immigrants, particularly those coming from rural communities where farming and gardening had been part of daily life, was to recapture a connection with the land. Writer Patricia Klindienst, who has chronicled the experiences of immigrant and ethnic gardeners, argues that “garden metaphors have always been used to describe the experience of migration.” Instead of associating immigrants as “transplants” similar to plants that have been removed and replanted, Klindienst suggests we understand the immigrant “as a gardener–a person who shapes the world rather than simply being shaped by it.” In the past couple of decades, as the ranks of both documented and undocumented immigrants have swelled in city and countryside, immigrant gardeners have been able to renew small slivers of unused or abandoned land and have come to constitute, along with immigrant farmers, the most rapidly growing group of food growers in the U.S.

Immigrant farmer numbers coincide with a renewed interest in growing food. New farms that have been established between 2003 and 2007 average about 200 acres in size and have a small revenue stream. Many of those new farmers are women–Hispanic and Asian. Farming, for many of these growers, has been part of their cultural and economic heritage. They bring their histories from all over the world. Some may be war-related or political refugees from places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, Burundi or Senegal; others may be economic refugees from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, Togo, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Ecuador or the Dominican Republic.

Perhaps what is best about the American food experience is its hybrid nature–its multiple fusions of food cultures. Whether in a tiny, ethnic (read: immigrant) restaurant in Los Angeles or New York, or through new Latino and Asian cuisines popping up in places like Nashville, Tennessee or Portland, Maine, immigrant farmers are maintaining their influence in our food system. Their engagement in some of the most innovative food justice groups–ALBA in Northern California, Communidad de Communidad in western Washington, and the National Immigrant Farming Initiative—strengthens their connection to past and present identities.

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When we consider The Dream Act, let’s think more inclusively about immigration reform and legal rights. Our food system depends on reform for all producers who support and nourish us. Laws that support their rights will support cultural traditions and ensure the growth of fair, diversified food.

Adapted from Food Justice

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Robert Gottlieb is the Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College and the co-author with Anupama Joshi of the book Food Justice (MIT Press). He recently returned from a series of community and campus talks on food justice issues in Arizona. Read more >

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  1. Staci
    This was a really interesting post. I don't think I would necessarily connect the Dream Act's passage with its impact on cultural and sustainable food, certainly not automatically at least. But I think you explained this relationship really well--I tend to agree, the fusion of all these different cultures that have immigrated here significantly influence our food culture. Still, I'm not so sure how well this particular argument in favor of immigration reform would hold up in Congress.
  2. I absolutely agree that immigrant communities have made vital contributions to our food system, but it's a tricky issue. I once saw a post from a right wing blogger complaining that Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard program puts immigrant children back out in the fields, so to speak, instead of giving them an education. Food work and agriculture can be empowering and life affirming, but this kind of work can also involve brutal drudgery.

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