Alfonso Guilin: Conflict Lemons

By Sheryl Hamlin

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How fitting that Alfonso (Al) Guilin’s favorite authors are Hemingway and Steinbeck, both master storytellers whose prose of realistic, unadorned text reflects their own lives and experiences. And, like all good authors, Mr. Guilin of Santa Paula, California honed his craft through the discipline of personal journals over a period of five decades.

His previous books Sweet Lemons, The Lemon Thorn and The Short Handle Hoe, take the reader into the lives and loves of fieldworkers and their families, as they work and assimilate. Undoubtedly the characters are based on people Mr. Guilin has known in his years of in agriculture. The handsome, upwardly mobile Dr. Reynoso exists in communities across the country.

The most recent edition to the Guilin oeuvre is Conflict Lemons wherein the author moves from bittersweet prose to didacticism.

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The book opens with four unadorned sentences in verb-object form reading much like a police report, a perfect segue to the arrival of the U.S. Border Patrol in the second paragraph. The book moves quickly from arrest, release, political drama, unexpected consequences and agribusiness as a charming love story evolves with each chapter.

Contemporary socio-political topics such as for-profit prisons, guest-worker programs, and millions of people living in the shadows are central to the book.

By the fourth page of the book, the protagonist is incarcerated in a for-profit prison located in Adelanto, a poor community west of Highway 395 in California. Elected officials in such communities often see the for-profit prisons as a source of revenue and jobs for the community. The for-profit prison business has been silently reaping profits by benefitting from three-strikes initiatives across the country that have filled public prisons to capacity. The Washington Post recently said:

“The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy.”

The protagonist in Conflict Lemons is accidentally aligned with an immigration group whose mission statement is straightforward and is reflected in this long statement by one of the political operatives:

“…Immigration policies in this country have always been tenuous and controversial and they continue to be so even today. However, regardless of what one thinks of the situation, the fact is that hundreds, no, thousands of men and women sneak across the border to work. And no matter what many think the fact is, they are hired and are working for us. We can act innocent and act as if this were not happening, but the fact is it happens. Our organization’s effort is simple: we want to recognize that fact, be aware of who these people are and treat them like human beings. Now while we have an estimated 10 to 12 million people here living and working under the radar, there are many who seem to be satisfied with this underground economy. However, I think you’ll agree that this type of system leads to all sorts of problems and abuses. All we want to do is recognize we need people to work and then permit them to enter the US and work out in the open like any other human being. This underground employment system is good for no one except those who want to abuse and take advantage of these people who only want to work.” (Conflict Lemons, page 69).

Unlike current proposals to deport or self-deport undocumented laborers, the solution proposed in Conflict Lemons focuses on the CEO or owner of the company or business employing the laborer. The theory is that these people have the ultimate responsibility and should take responsibility. The proposed legislation fines the CEO and includes jail time, which is exactly opposite from the current situation where the undocumented laborer is jailed. By turning the tables, so to speak, Guilin creates a new tension in the immigration debate. If companies are forced to hire through a lawful organization who issues work permits to guest workers, there will be order and theoretically better treatment of the workers. The book develops this scenario in a fast-moving plot.

Graduating from CSU Pomona in 1961 with a degree in Agricultural Business Management, Guilin traveled across the United States as a Kellogg Fellow and across Europe to observe agriculture in the European Common Market. Alfonso Guilin has had personal experience with the Bracero Program which lasted from 1947 to 1964, because his father employed braceros.  Saying it was theoretically a good program, it should have been updated rather than abandoned saying there are parts of both the Bracero Program and the H2A Visa which could become a reasonable program. Now the situation has escalated creating labor shortages and human suffering.

“Comprehensive immigration reform” is a political buzzword for dead-on-arrival. Such bills include increased border security, penalties against employers such as requiring the use of e-verify (why is this a penalty?), a guest worker program and a path for residency and/or citizenship.  It is the latter provision, which causes the most political whiplash. Rather than breaking the issue into manageable pieces, the congress has produced nothing.

The United States is considering the acceptance of tens of thousands of refugees from the crisis in Syria. Will these people be issued work permits? At what point, will a problem solver arise with a practical solution for those here now and working? Perhaps, Conflict Lemons will provide a road map.

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For more information about the author, visit sheryhamlin.com

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