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US Policy Destroys Mexican Countryside, Persecutes Farmworkers

COOKE COUNTY, TEXAS - Not long ago, half a dozen people calling themselves the Lone Star Minutemen descended on a corner in the college town near our farm to protest illegal immigration. Every day at this corner, undocumented Latino men gather in hopes of landing a day's work with passing contractors.

These Minutemen appropriated their name from the militia of the American Revolution, which had to be ready to swap plows for muskets at minute's notice to defend their new country. Those independent farmers became a cornerstone of the United States' civic mythology. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson believed them to be the source and guardian of democracy itself.

Today's Minutemen want stricter limits on immigration. That approach would shut out people who come as close as anyone to making reality of Jefferson's vision. That's certainly true of some Mexican neighbors of mine - hardworking folks who farm other people's land, scraping and saving until they can afford a few acres of their own. Against all odds, some make that dream come true.

My Mexican neighbors, and others like them all over the United States, are also one of the first rays of hope that farm country has seen in many a moon. Ever since the Dust Bowl days, many rural counties have been losing people. Between 1990 and 2000, Latino immigrants have kept more than 100 rural counties from suffering that fate, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Latinos are the fastest growing group among farmers, whose numbers have declined for decades. Nationwide, the number of Hispanic farmers doubled between 1997 and 2002, even as the overall number of farmers dwindled.

The United States has its own trade policies to thank for the rising number of farmers migrating here from Mexico. As heavy U.S. farm subsidies flood Mexican markets with cheap corn, farmers there earn less on the corn they grow. Many of them have no choice but to go looking for another job. In that search, many learn the hard way that "free trade" agreements open borders only to wealth - freeing it to go wherever it can multiply the quickest - but not to those impoverished by that process.

Combining an agricultural policy that ruins Mexico's farmers with immigration laws that keep them from rescuing the United States' own rural economies makes little sense and less justice. That lack is plain in the modern-day Minutemen's unneighborly attitudes, and in the draconian immigration bill currently before the Senate. The bill would put up a new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, use police and military troops to patrol it and make illegal immigration a felony.

Such schemes punish not only immigrants but also the "natives" who still inhabit - and value - rural communities. Farming as a way of life is tough, rewarding and vanishing. I welcome any people who will keep it going, and I want an immigration policy that doesn't get in their way.

My family has lived on the land that we farm for five generations, but I try not to feel smug about that. For all I know, a like smugness may have inspired the earlier "natives" who scalped my great-great-grandfather. Wind the clock back far enough, and we are all newcomers - all with something to contribute, all in need of and eager to return a helping hand.

Wylie Harris ranches with his family in Cooke County, north of Fort Worth. He wrote this column for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, in Salina, Kan.