Public Anthropologies

In this installment of our “Public Dialogues” series, Milena Andrea Melo talks to Sarah B. Horton, author of They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields: Injury, Illness, and Illegality among U.S. Farmworkers (University of California Press, 2016), about the role of immigrant labor in the United States, the toll that farm labor takes on workers’ bodies, and how the logics and practices of “crimmigration”—the convergence of immigration and criminal law and the treatment of undocumented migrants as “criminals”—that were put into place under previous political administrations might be extended under the current political administration.


Milena Andrea Melo (MAM): What is the main focus of your book?

Sarah Horton (SH): My book focuses on a disturbing casualty of our food system—that is, the high rate of heat deaths suffered by migrant farmworkers. Farmworkers die from heat at a rate higher than workers in any other industry—including construction—and foreign-born Latino men face particular risk. At my fieldsite in California’s Central Valley, growers, state officials, and county coroners tend to portray these deaths as the result of natural causes—for example, high temperatures or preexisting chronic diseases. In my book, I challenge this tendency to naturalize farmworker deaths by conducting what scholars call a “social autopsy” of the social and political circumstances that place migrant farmworkers in harm’s way.

Much of the literature on the reasons for the high rate of heatstroke among farmworkers suggests that the remedy lies primarily in changing individual health behaviors—that farmworkers need to learn to better recognize the symptoms of heat illness when it strikes or that they need to stop drinking energy drinks (such as Red Bull) in the fields. The problem with these approaches is that they blame the deaths on farmworkers themselves and neglect the overarching public policies and social structures that profoundly influence farmworkers’ behaviors at work. For example, pay mechanisms, such as piece-rate pay, actually encourage farmworkers to drink energy drinks in order to increase their productivity and pay. The other problem with the literature in occupational health is that it largely neglects what farmworkers say about the causes of heat illness and death. I turn to farmworkers as experts on the issue, privileging their own insights in order to create a “social epidemiology from the ground up.”

MAM: A key focus of your book is on how intensified federal immigration enforcement jeopardizes migrants’ labor conditions. You explore this issue through an analysis of the phenomenon you call “identity loan” and how it makes farmworkers more vulnerable at work. How did you come across this issue and why do you think it’s important for understanding farmworkers’ vulnerability at work?

SH: In interviewing farmworkers about why they might not report their illnesses to their supervisors, I often heard them say they would stay quiet because they were “working someone else’s papers.” In farmworking communities, legal permanent residents and citizens entice undocumented migrants into working their papers. These “identity loans” grant undocumented migrants the papers they need to work—that is, a green card or passport and a Social Security card—while augmenting the donor’s Social Security funds and unemployment payments.

But it isn’t just farmworkers’ coworkers and friends who ask them to work their papers in order to gain additional income. Instead, labor supervisors often make an offer of employment to a worker contingent upon their agreement to work the valid work authorization documents of a friend or family member. This practice leads to both the supervisor’s and the friend or family member’s financial benefit. The undocumented worker’s earnings contribute to the donor’s Social Security account and pad his unemployment earnings at the end of the harvest season. Meanwhile, labor supervisors themselves benefit; in exchange for his role in facilitating the arrangement, the identity donor gives the labor supervisor a “kickback.”

This practice also helps companies avoid state and federal fines and potential immigration raids and audits. Employers avoid paying overtime by requiring that their entire workforce work under loaned identities on Sundays. Thus, employers intentionally engage in “identity masking”: they loan workers valid identities to disguise their violation of immigration and labor laws.

What’s so disturbing about this practice is that it leaves migrants open to prosecution for “crimes” that they themselves did not initiate. The recent federal and state practice of prosecuting migrants for “identity theft” makes migrants vulnerable when their employers ask them to work loaned documents. At the same time, a series of punitive changes in immigration law have intensified the immigration-related consequences of convictions for document-related crimes. Both of these developments—which undermine immigrant workers’ work conditions—are due to the growing convergence of immigration and criminal law and the treatment of undocumented migrants as “criminals” in policy and practice.

MAM: What kinds of perspectives does your book contribute to the understanding of immigration in the United States that you see missing from contemporary debates and portrayals of immigrants in the Trump era?

SH: My book shows how individuals with legal status, employers, and even employers’ family members all benefit from providing undocumented workers with the documents they need to work.

Unfortunately, the idea of undocumented migrants as “identity thieves” is a doggedly persistent myth in contemporary political discourse. It surfaced in the public debates around the first two casualties of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, both undocumented mothers: Guadalupe García de Rayos, who was deported from Phoenix on February 8, and Jeanette Vizguerra, who is currently taking refuge in a church in Denver. These women became known to immigration authorities and became targets for deportation solely because of their possession of fake or invented documentation, which is in fact required by federal law for them to work. And in both cases (and Guadalupe’s in particular) the media debates about whether they were “deserving” of remaining in the United States or not focused on their criminal records for these very ordinary transgressions—transgressions that are, in fact, necessary for any undocumented immigrant to work in the United States today.


It’s been encouraging and inspiring to see anthropologists who work on immigration organize roundtables to address the current administration’s policies, deliver their conference presentations as public talks in bookstores, and organize networks of interdisciplinary scholars to discuss how to best protect undocumented students. As one of my colleagues put it, only half-jokingly, we are now measuring our impact not by the number of citations of our journal articles but rather by how many times our op-eds and blogs are shared on Facebook or retweeted, or whether we are successful in prodding cities and universities to implement concrete policies protecting immigrants and immigrant students. For immigration scholars, this appears to be a moment in which the many varieties of public anthropology—engaged, applied, advocacy, activist, and even “rogue”—assume renewed importance as vital complements to each other and to our scholarly work.


What is often missing from the media accounts of these cases is that both women’s use of fake and invented documentation was only detected because of state and federal laws devolving immigration enforcement to localities. Guadalupe was apprehended during a workplace raid made possible by the 287(g) program, which in 1996 devolved immigration enforcement to local police and sheriffs. Meanwhile, Jeanette was pulled over for a mundane traffic violation and ultimately turned over to ICE because of Colorado’s “Show Me Your Papers” law, which encourages racial profiling. So I think it’s important for the public to have a more nuanced understanding of the contexts surrounding these women’s criminal records, and to understand the previous “crimmigration” context that has led us to this point. While these women were certainly casualties of Trump’s enforcement initiatives, they were first casualties of a national approach to “governing immigration through crime”—that is, of using criminal charges and imprisonment as an additional deterrent to undocumented immigration.

MAM: What do you see as the best ways for public anthropologists to respond to the current immigration moment?

The tough rind of the cantaloupe erodes the skin, so most workers use athletic tape to protect their fingers. (Photograph by Sarah B. Horton)

SH: I think that anthropologists have much to contribute to inform the public debate about immigration and help the public place the current immigration moment in perspective. The proposals to build a wall on our southern border, create a “Muslim ban,” dramatically restrict refugee admissions, and even curtail visas awarded to immigrants through family unification recall the nativist and racist climate just before the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act—an act that imposed quotas by national origin to keep the nation of white “Anglo-Saxon” character. I think it’s more important than ever for public scholars to draw attention to the extreme nature of the nativist rhetoric coming from the current administration and to critique misleading portrayals of immigrants as “criminals” and as “drains” on public resources. I’m currently working to assemble an edited volume of short, pithy, narrative-driven essays to help undergraduates understand how such xenophobic restrictionism represents a break with the immigration policies of the past fifty years, even as past deportation and crimmigration policies laid the groundwork for the present. I’m hopeful that this kind of public work will help students separate fact from fiction and view the hateful rhetoric of the current administration critically.

It’s been encouraging and inspiring to see anthropologists who work on immigration organize roundtables to address the current administration’s policies, deliver their conference presentations as public talks in bookstores, and organize networks of interdisciplinary scholars to discuss how to best protect undocumented students. As one of my colleagues put it, only half-jokingly, we are now measuring our impact not by the number of citations of our journal articles but rather by how many times our op-eds and blogs are shared on Facebook or retweeted, or whether we are successful in prodding cities and universities to implement concrete policies protecting immigrants and immigrant students. For immigration scholars, this appears to be a moment in which the many varieties of public anthropology—engaged, applied, advocacy, activist, and even “rogue”—assume renewed importance as vital complements to each other and to our scholarly work. So the current political moment may provide exactly the impetus we need for a greater valorization of public and activist work in the academy. While it’s impossible to predict the future, it seems that traditional academic priorities are being reshaped in the current moment and that public anthropology may play a revitalized role in the discipline’s future. I hope that’s an enduring change, but that remains to be seen.

Milena Andrea Melo is an assistant professor of anthropology at Mississippi State University.

Sarah B. Horton is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver.

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