May 24, 2024

For the last 20 years, I’ve been visiting New Bedford, Massachusetts, to research the novel that I am now writing. New Bedford is the country’s number one fishing port in terms of profits. It is now mostly Central Americans, especially Mayas from Guatemala, who staff the port’s fish processing houses. Many first fled to New Bedford as refugees from the wars of Central America, wars in which many, many more civilians were slain than combatants, and in which most of those civilians were murdered by U.S.-backed militaries. Many young women I’ve interviewed and gotten to know in New Bedford first worked in the so-called fish houses at ages as young as 14, and some, working night shifts, still managed to go to high school. A few even went on to college; some already have daughters and sons in college. Working in fish houses is the classic job that nobody but immigrants, having no other choice, are willing to take, yet the health of New Bedford’s commercial fishing–driven economy partly depends on them. Many of those women, I’ve learned over the years, fled sexual abuse from gangs or aberrant family members; many, so rightly, were granted asylum. At the Community Economic Development Center, or CEDC, co-founded by Corinn Williams, which has been providing support of all kinds to New Bedford immigrants for over 20 years, springtime is when the offices are swamped every day, even Saturdays, by immigrants needing help filing their tax returns. On one wall, photographs have been displayed of new immigrant homeowners and the houses they’ve purchased. Across the street, the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a worker center led by Adrian Ventura, a Guatemalan Maya who was a war refugee, has organized fish plant employees, among others, on behalf of workers’ rights regardless of immigration status. Most recently, the center won protections against deportation and got work permits for fish plant workers who’d been subjected to workplace abuses, a development Corinn Williams told me she’s seeing reflected this year in immigrants’ tax filings.

In New Bedford, the best-paid employment by far, especially for young men, is on the fishing boats. “The finest kind,” as commercial fishermen are known there, until recently were made up mainly of Portuguese fishermen, immigrants, sons, grandsons, and those from other immigrant groups. Heroin, opioids, and now fentanyl addictions among fishermen have had a devastating and demoralizing effect on the fleet over the last two decades. So have the decline in fish stocks, other ecologically caused problems, the burdensome regulations these have occasioned, and perceptions of a threatened future for New England commercial fishing in general. I’ve heard many stories about fish captains who, at first reluctantly, hired young Guatemalans—many from remote mountain communities and who’d never even seen the ocean—to work on their boats, only to find themselves impressed by how quickly and adeptly those young men adapted to the brutally hard and dangerous work. Now Mexicans and Central Americans comprise an ever-growing part of the fishing fleet. They are paid the same as white crewmates. One fishing boat captain told me about how terrible it was, back in the times of Trump and ICE’s earlier Operation Return to Sender, when agents sometimes lurked on the docks, waiting for fishing boats to come in.

I thought of New Bedford’s Central American community amid the spate of recent stories about a Congressional Budget Office assessment that recent immigrants are the cause of the current economy’s relatively robust state. The CBO even estimates that the surge in immigration will help bolster the U.S. economy by $7 trillion over the next decade.