Foreign Exchange(s)

My story of Harry Dexter White, published by Damn Interesting on December 29, 2016

By the summer of 1944, the Mount Washington Hotel had been mothballed for two years. Nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains, the sprawling resort was once a favorite getaway for wealthy New Englanders. But in the wake of the Great Depression and the second war to end all wars, the end appeared nigh for this silent relic of America’s Gilded Age.

Then the US Treasury department offered its owners a staggering $300,000 if they would host a conference⁠—to start in less than a month. An army of hotel workers and hastily recruited townspeople got to work. On the first of July, 730 delegates from 44 countries checked in and proceeded to conduct one of the most influential economic conferences of all time, carving into history the name of the sylvan outpost where it was held: Bretton Woods.

Known officially as the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, the Bretton Woods talks focused primarily on foreign exchange rates (the price of US dollars, say, in British pounds) and other tedious minutia of monetary policy. With the world engulfed in war, few in those days were giving much thought to topics as arcane as these. But some people were giving it quite a lot of thought. One was US Treasury advisor Harry Dexter White, who had been toiling in relative obscurity to forge an exchange rate policy that all nations on earth would agree to. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before.

Now the technocrat from humble roots was about to pull it off, earning recognition and his first official government title: Assistant Secretary to the US Treasury. Harry White would soon experience recognition of another sort, with his name splashed across newspaper headlines⁠—but for reasons having nothing to do with exchange rates, economics, or Bretton Woods.

One of the outcomes of World War 1 was, quite unfortunately, the setting of political and economic conditions that led to World War 2. There were many factors at play, but the isolationist policies of the United States⁠—such as its refusal to join the League of Nations⁠—certainly didn’t help. After the second world war the US would play a far more active political role on the world stage as a key member of the United Nations. Lesser known is how the US propelled itself into the economic center of the post-war world and indeed came to dominate global finance. The man chiefly responsible for this turnabout was a most unlikely fellow.

Harry Dexter White
Harry Dexter White

Harry Dexter White was born in 1892 to Lithuanian immigrants who ran a hardware store in Boston’s tenement district. He followed his father into the nuts and bolts business and quit his first attempt at college, returning to hardware until enlisting in the Army for an uneventful tour of duty in France during World War 1. At the age of thirty, White again strolled into the groves of academia, this time blossoming at Columbia University, then getting hooked on economics at Stanford, and finally earning his Ph.D. and a teaching position at Harvard.

Harry’s academic years were marked by decidedly liberal thinking. In the 1924 presidential race, he pledged his support to the long-shot Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette, who would run a distant third behind John Davis and victor Calvin Coolidge. His writing conveyed a passion for stabilizing economies, pointing to centralized control of trade as a potential model. Harry even went so far as to learn Russian so he might travel there to study it first hand.

But Harry would ultimately go to Washington instead. Frustrated with academia, he wanted to do more than just teach his big ideas. He wanted to put them into action. As such, he was only too happy to take advantage of an opportunity in 1934 to move to the nation’s capital to advise US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and, before long, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It was a perfect match. Neither Morgenthau nor FDR had much interest in (nor patience for) the tedium of economics. They needed someone who would work in the shadows doing endless research on arcane topics then put them into plain English. They needed what would later be known as a “wonk.” And Harry was the perfect wonk.

Much of Harry’s research centered on world trade problems brought on by the collapse of the gold standard in World War 1. This policy, whereby countries backed their currency with a fixed amount of gold, had been maintaining international price stability for quite a long time. It was conceived in 1717 by none other than Sir Isaac Newton, known famously (though apocryphally) for discovering gravity after a knock on the noggin from a falling apple. Newton gets little credit for his accomplishments, some quite impressive, as Master of the Royal Mint in London. But when one lays the groundwork for modern physics, these things happen.

With the gold standard, paper currency exists as a proxy for a country’s gold reserves. It can be tempting, however, for a country to print more money than it can back up with gold, say when it is at war. That’s what happened during World War 1. Countries needed urgently to buy armaments and pay their soldiers, and decided to unpeg their currency from gold and print as much money as they needed. As the world would soon learn, this can lead to all sorts of other problems, not the least of which is inflation. With more units of currency chasing the same quantity of stuff, the price of stuff goes up. Sometimes by quite a lot.

A United States gold certificate from 1928
A United States gold certificate from 1928

In the years between the two world wars, the price of currency fluctuated wildly⁠—and not just so a country could pay its bills. A country might launch a currency war to competitively devalue its currency, simply to make its products artificially cheaper. Even the United States fiddled with the price of gold, buying and selling it to artificially manipulate domestic prices, for reasons bordering on whimsical. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt one morning raised the price of gold by twenty-one cents. “It’s a lucky number,” he said from his bed, “because it’s three times seven.”

In September 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland. Two days later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany and the Second World War was underway. During the two years before officially joining the war, the United States provided massive support to Great Britain by way of the Lend Lease Program, in which the Americans essentially rented armaments to the British. It gave Great Britain a fighting chance, and put it into considerable debt, both financial and political, to the United States.

In December 1941, a mere two weeks after Pearl Harbor, US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau directed Harry White to draft a plan for economic stability following the end of the war. It was brashly forward-thinking and gave Harry Dexter White the opportunity of a lifetime. He got right to work.

What came to be known as the “White Plan” called for three things to be in place the moment the war ended: Massive capital to help war-torn countries rebuild, the resumption of international trade, and stable exchange rates. This last objective was vital. To achieve it, Harry White proposed renewal of the gold standard, fixing the value of all currency to the world’s most precious metal. Harry loved the gold standard.

Harry’s proposal was circulated among treasury officials around the world. But it was not the only one. The esteemed British economist and author John Maynard Keynes (pronounced “canes”) wrote a competing proposal. Unlike Harry, Keynes was well known and respected, even by the general public. Keynes also had an opinion of the gold standard. He hated it.

Born into British privilege, as a young boy Keynes suffered a weak constitution but showed preternatural intellect. On at least one occasion, he infused family prayers with math, using algebraic symbols to represent his mother and younger brother. “Let Mother equal x,” he intoned, “and let Geoffrey equal y”. By the age of 26 John Maynard Keynes had already earned a lifetime appointment at King’s College in Cambridge.

Like White, Keynes found his greatest calling in the field of economics. His genius and creative approach to solving the most challenging quantitative problems was compared to that of Albert Einstein. He titled what became perhaps his most influential book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

In the depths of the greatest war of all time, responsibility for post-war economic stability rested on the shoulders of these two men from starkly different backgrounds. The Keynes proposal centered on the idea of a new global currency. He called his proposed currency bancor, French for “bank gold.” Unlike traditional currency, the bancor was to be exchanged only among central banks. Private transactions would continue to use national currencies, each of which was to be equivalent to a fixed number of bancors. Nations could buy bancors with gold but not redeem them for gold, thus retiring the traditional role of the precious metal. Keynes was in essence proposing a gold standard with gold replaced by the bancor.

White, left, and Keynes, right
White, left, and Keynes, right

The White proposal called for a gold standard based on gold, and gold-convertible currency, just like the old days. Or so it seemed. Keynes was concerned about the meaning of the term “gold-convertible currency.” Might any member currency be convertible? Or only one? Or perhaps bancor?

White dodged the question. He would not answer Keynes, and instead suggested any further clarification be deferred to a conference of representatives from all allied nations. Keynes had no choice but to go along, but did make clear that he would not support any policy whereby only the US dollar was to be convertible to gold. However that is precisely what Harry White had in mind.

In addition to forging an agreement on exchange rates, there was also the matter of how to enforce it. White wanted the US to run a new body, to be named the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to see that nations adhered to what would come to be known as the Bretton Woods system. He allowed that Great Britain could run the much less influential World Bank, then known as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to lend money to developing countries and those recovering from the war. Keynes wanted it the other way around. Compared to the IMF, the World Bank position seemed like a consolation prize.

Although 730 delegates from 44 countries converged on Bretton Woods, most of them could just as well have stayed on the golf course. Many in fact did. The essential negotiations were between the United States and Great Britain. And both sides had good reason for confidence in getting their way.

Great Britain had the celebrity economist John Maynard Keynes as their chief negotiator. They could also simply walk away, should negotiations fail, and the idea of getting nations to agree to any international accord absent Great Britain was all but preposterous. They also had great national pride, stiff upper lips, and a quiet disregard for American intellect. Winston Churchill once summarized British respect for the United States by remarking that “we can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

The United States had plenty of negotiating power of their own, even in the midst of a world war. For starters the US was then the largest creditor nation on earth and it held two-thirds of the world’s gold in its reserves (in stark contrast to today, where the US is among the top debtor nations). They also had a massive IOU from the British for the food, oil, and materiel the US furnished in the war effort. And in Harry White they had a chief negotiator willing to use procedural manipulation and outright deception in order to get his way.

The practical objective of the Bretton Woods conference was to get 44 signatures on a document, known as the Joint Statement, containing the terms of a new international agreement. Delegates were organized into committees to hash out nuances of a working draft of the agreement, a draft which so far left unanswered the question of which currency was to be convertible to gold. The draft in fact made no mention of a gold-convertible currency at all, indicating only that the value of member nation currency be “expressed in terms of gold.”

Delegates in a meeting
Delegates in a meeting

Then, just before the meeting of a committee Harry knew Keynes could not attend due to a cleverly-designed scheduling conflict, Harry added the words “gold-convertible currency” to the draft. Great Britain was represented on this committee by delegate Dennis Robertson, who in verbal discussion allowed that, for practical purposes, it was acceptable “to regard the United States dollar as what was intended when we speak of gold convertible exchange.” It was all Harry needed.

When it came time to prepare the final draft of the Joint Statement, the document for signature, Harry directed his staff to finally spell out his intention by replacing “gold” with “gold and U.S. dollars” throughout the 96-page document. Delegates saw this version of the Joint Statement only as they were asked to sign it, some literally as they were checking out of the hotel, with no opportunity to see the change. Keynes would not know what White had done until well after everyone had departed Bretton Woods.

Via questionable machinations, Harry Dexter White had prevailed. And now there was to be just one currency that meant anything to most of the world, the US dollar, convertible to gold at a rate of $35 per ounce. The agreement made at Bretton Woods elevated the US dollar from a national currency to a global one, moved the financial center of the world from London to Washington, and established two governing bodies that influence world economics to this day. But although the US did indeed get what it wanted at the Bretton Woods conference, its intentions would soon be thwarted by a most unexpected turn of events.

At the time of the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were still comparatively good. They were among the allied forces, after all, that would soon defeat Adolf Hitler and bring an end to World War II. But with the breakdown of the Yalta accords in February 1945, those relations went decidedly sour. Thus began the Cold War, suspicions of espionage, and a rabid hunt for spies.

In November 1945, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a memo to the White House claiming that seven government officials were providing secret information to Soviet agents. One of those named was Treasury Department rock star and architect of the Bretton Woods conference: Harry Dexter White.

It’s unclear whether or not the memo made it to President Harry Truman, who had ascended to the office upon FDR’s death the year before. In any event, in January 1946, Truman nominated White to be the US executive director at the IMF. This was no surprise given White’s leadership at Bretton Woods. Indeed, Truman planned to later nominate White for the IMF’s top job, managing director, a nomination that would have sailed through but for the next communiqué from the FBI.

Alarmed by news of White’s nomination, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover then prepared a new and detailed memo focusing on the allegations against Harry White. According to Hoover, White was reportedly providing Treasury documents to known Soviet agents. The report claimed to be based on numerous sources but did not provide iron-clad proof of any wrongdoing. Unlike the first memo, this one certainly did make it to the president. Truman didn’t know what to believe. No big fan of Hoover, nor of the overzealous hunt for spies that put the careers of honest people at risk of ruin, he let the nomination stand.

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon

The president did agree to quietly move White into a position with more limited access to government secrets⁠—just in case⁠—and he made a startling offer: Britain could appoint a head for the IMF after all, and the United States would do the same for the World Bank. The US did not give a reason. The American change of tune was an official diplomatic communiqué along the lines of, “Just kidding about the IMF thing!” The British did not question the turnaround and wasted no time in delivering an official diplomatic response along the lines of, “Sure!”

Harry Dexter White expressed outrage at the allegations of espionage. He had never even heard of the supposed informants ratting him out, he claimed, and was most certainly not a spy for the Soviets. The claims seemed particularly far-fetched considering his accomplishment at Bretton Woods, making the United States arguably the most powerful nation on earth. Would he have tried so hard if his true allegiance was to another country?

In August of 1948, White put on a rousing performance in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the US Congressional investigative body which would come to be known for flimsy accusations and political grandstanding in its relentless pursuit of Communists. HUAC had not summoned Harry White. Such was his eagerness to clear his name, Harry White had in fact asked for permission to testify. His opening statement of complete denial of the accusations, and of his steady support for all things American, was answered by spirited applause from the audience. Committee members remained stone-faced.

White deflected charges with confidence, facts, and indeed tried to discredit HUAC itself, equating its hearings to unlawful “star chamber proceedings.” When a young Congressman on the committee named Richard Nixon prodded him to admit knowing his chief accusers, Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, he was steadfast. No, he repeated, he could not recollect knowing anyone by those names.

His bravado performance in front of HUAC did not come without a cost. On the train home to New York he suffered terrible chest pains. White’s doctor diagnosed a heart attack. He died the next day. Rumors naturally swirled among his detractors of some sort of take-out by the Soviets, or that his death had been faked, but such hearsay was never substantiated.

The witch hunt for Soviet spies among American government officials and cultural elite continued with inglorious gusto. The scourge known as McCarthyism, named for Senator Joe McCarthy, would ruin numerous careers before being written into American history as one of its darker chapters. But Harry Dexter White’s name would not be among them. He had stood up to the red-baiting and prevailed.

Harry Dexter White swearing the oath
Harry Dexter White swearing the oath

Revolutionary as it was, the Bretton Woods accord would not last all that long. It was not fully operational until 1958. And soon its fatal flaw started to show. While it did insulate global prices from unwise monetary and fiscal policies of member nations, the glaring exception was the United States. The global regime would work only so long as the US exercised impeccable economic discipline at home. This meant the US had to resist the urge to get out of economic binds by printing money.

In the 1960s, other countries began to suspect the US was indeed giving in to such temptation⁠— that it was printing more money than it had gold to back up, owing in no small part to the extraordinary financial cost (not to mention human cost) of the war in Vietnam. This did not sit well with other countries. They were particularly bothered by the fact the United States, to produce more of its currency, need only fire up the printing presses. Any other nation had to actually produce goods.

Not only were these other nations perturbed, they also had to confront the very real risk that their US dollars would one day not be redeemable for gold. So in the 1960s, other countries, led by France, began redeeming US dollars for gold in rather large quantities.

In 1971, with US gold reserves at frighteningly low levels, President Richard Nixon took an axe to the central tenet of the Bretton Woods accord: the convertibility of US dollars to gold. This time, there was no conference in the woods and little or no meaningful consultation with other countries. There was only a unilateral action that came to be known as the Nixon Shock.

From that day forward, the price of most world currency has floated freely⁠—and sometimes wildly⁠—in response to market forces. A number of countries such as Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia kept (and still keep) their currency pegged to the US dollar, backed by nothing more than the full faith and credit of the United States. And some countries such as Panama and Zimbabwe simply use US dollars as their own legal tender.

Nixon’s action was not without consequence. Freed of the Bretton Woods shackles, the US could give up the pretense of having enough gold to back up its currency. The United States dollar was now a fiat currency, from the Latin term for “let it become,” created by decree. Uncle Sam could print all the dollars he wanted, and he wasted no time doing just that.

When money is created out of thin air there is suddenly more of it to allocate to the things it can buy. Prices go up not as a consequence of demand or value but only because there are more dollars to spread around. It is little surprise, then, that inflation went through the roof in the early 1970s. Subjected to pure market forces since 1971, major currencies have also more than once been the target of powerful speculation, when well-heeled traders place enormous bets aimed at artificially lowering the price of currency for their personal gain.

Most nations today are on their own when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy. And the price of gold and US dollars remain to this day free of artificial constraint, moving in response to the ebbs, flows, shocks, and follies of an ever turbulent world economy.

Harry Dexter White never lived to see his Bretton Woods creation put into action, nor of course its demise. It’s a good bet Richard Nixon’s opinion of Bretton Woods was not bolstered by his personal opinion of Harry Dexter White. From his days on HUAC onward, Nixon believed White lied to the committee. He believed White was being quite intentional and clever when he prefixed his denial of having known his accusers Chambers and Bentley with “I have no recollection of…” Nixon believed the architect of Bretton Woods was a Soviet spy.

Whittaker Chambers
Whittaker Chambers

It turns out he was right.

Harry Dexter White was indeed guilty of funneling secrets to the Soviets. He did it for quite a long time. His chief accuser was Whittaker Chambers, an editor for Time magazine and one-time Soviet agent who had renounced Communism and ratted out others, most famously senior US State Department official Alger Hiss. And White was no minor informant. According to Chambers, White’s “role as a Soviet agent was second in importance only to that of Alger Hiss⁠—if, indeed, it was second.”

According to Chambers, Harry White began providing him Treasury documents as early as 1935. White had access to not only the most sensitive Treasury documents, but to confidential documents provided by other departments of the US government. White would also provide the occasional summary of information he thought useful and his opinions on how best to reform the Soviet monetary system.

The evidence against White was extensive. The FBI gathered more than thirteen thousand pages of it⁠—much of it quite solid, including eight pages of notes in handwriting the FBI demonstrated was Harry White’s. Some evidence only came to light in 1995 with the release of transcripts of Soviet intelligence cables. These so-called “Venona transcripts” included revelations of internal discussions by members of the US delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations, revelations made to the Soviets by one of those members, Harry Dexter White.

It’s not clear what motivated White’s espionage. Some say he was out to secretly undermine American policy to help the Soviets, others that his actions were mostly appropriate, but that he occasionally crossed the line. It’s noteworthy too that he began passing information a decade before the US and Soviet became nuclear rivals. But it’s clear he shared confidential information he should not have, and that he knew he’d be in trouble were his actions revealed.

One of the more astonishing revelations in the Venona transcripts concerned White’s role in Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor. In late 1941 the Soviets wanted badly for the US to enter the war and, through intermediaries, enticed White to recommend to FDR that he deliver an ultimatum to Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The Soviets knew the one thing sure to tick off the Emperor was an ultimatum.

There were of course many factors leading up to Japan’s attack, but there is no dispute that White authored the ultimatum FDR delivered to Japan. The emperor decided promptly upon reading it to proceed with plans to bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As they did with many of their operations, the Soviets gave a nickname to this plan to draw the US into World War II. They named it Operation Snow⁠—as in Snow White.

The Soviets did not compensate White with money⁠—doing so would not be very Communist of them⁠—but with gifts. Delivery of the gifts, however, did not always go according to plan. According to author Benn Steil:

“One day (likely in 1945) a carpenter in Washington received a container of caviar at his house. Then a case of vodka was delivered. Then came an engraved invitation in the mail to attend a social event at the Soviet embassy. The carpenter was dumbfounded. Finally came a telephone call from a Harry Dexter White at the U.S. Treasury. The carpenter was also named Harry White. The Treasury-White had traced his misdirected presents. He proposed that carpenter-White send him half the goods and keep the other half. “I was going to send them all back to him,” the carpenter told a reporter. “But I thought,” after reflecting on his talk with Treasury-White, that “he’s the kind of fellow, that if I send them all back, will still think that I kept half. So I did.”

In 1997 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan led a commission that reviewed the Venona cables. Among their conclusions was that “the complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled. As does that of Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department.”

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank remain powerful institutions to this day, though not without fierce critics and growing competition⁠—the Asian Development Bank has dozens of member nations and quite a lot of money at its disposal. From time to time, there are calls for a new Bretton Woods, and perhaps one day there will be a global economic accord that includes the likes of China and India, the latter of which was still a colony of Great Britain in 1944.

If there is one day another conference like Bretton Woods, it’s a safe bet attending nations will read the final text thoroughly before agreeing, and give their representatives at the negotiating table a thorough background check.

The Secret Lives of America’s Migrant Farmers

ClotheslineAndBucket_mini

Published on Narratively on September 3, 2014

An innovative college program opens privileged young eyes to the million undocumented laborers who toil away in an invisible America. Story and photos by Michael Durbin

It’s early June at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, North Carolina. Towering pines outside the dining hall are still dripping after a night of hard rain. I take a seat at a breakfast table where most of the college students are quiet, still shaking off sleep. But one of them is bright-eyed.

“What brings you here?” Eric Britton asks me.

I explain I’m researching a story about Student Action with Farmworkers, the non-profit that assembled these thirty students from schools across the country.

Loosely affiliated with Duke University, SAF has sent more than 700 college students — they call themselves Safistas — into migrant farmworker camps as interns with various educational, legal and healthcare agencies.

The interns are here for a week of orientation about the estimated one million, mostly undocumented migrant farmworkers in the U.S. and the issues they face: workplace hazards, inadequate housing, low wages.

Not all of what they learn comes from SAF instructors, and not all of it is about farmworking.

Eric turns to another Safista at the table. “Are there any good bars in Columbia?”

“There’s Delaney’s, in Five Points,” answers Christine Burke. She grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, where Eric will be based. “They have pint nights on Wednesday.”

“Delaney’s. Got it.”

At twenty-one, Eric is among the oldest here. He is deep-voiced, slim and fit — an avid soccer player since age four — and wears glasses on a face rarely devoid of a smile. When I ask what brought him here he doesn’t hesitate:

“For me it’s all about the language.”

Eric’s Spanish is already quite good for a non-native. He started learning it in kindergarten, when his parents enrolled him in a Spanish immersion elementary school. But Eric is considering a career in the foreign service and needs all the practice he can get.

Around half of the Safistas are already fluent in Spanish. It’s their native language. Unlike Eric, these Safistas come from farmworking families. Working with SAF broadens their view of farmworker issues beyond their personal experience. Their participation also allows Safistas from more privileged backgrounds to learn about the farmworker experience not only from workers the meet in the fields, but from their peers as well.

Eric Britton was born in June 1992 — the very month SAF first sent students into the fields. Every summer since, while Safistas worked in some of the poorest counties in America where farmworkers live, Eric was growing up in one of the wealthiest.

Montgomery County, Maryland, lies just outside of Washington, D.C. Its tonier parts are home to country clubs, houses with seven-digit price tags and private schools where tuition can top $30,000. Eric and his two sisters went to public school in Rockville, one of the county’s more middle-class areas. Their upbringing on a tree-canopied street was typical of the area: nice brick house, weekend movies at the Regal cinema and summer vacations to places like the Florida Keys. He took up skydiving when he turned eighteen, something he enjoys now whenever he can.

Eric Britton spent his summer working as a Safista - an intern for Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).
Eric Britton spent his summer working as a Safista – an intern for Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).

After five rainy days in Efland, the 2013 Safistas pack their cars and disperse across a multi-state triangle spanning both Carolinas and some of Virginia, an area of more than 70,000 square miles. SAF estimates there are roughly 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, the majority of them undocumented, and two to three million nationally (other estimates put the number closer to one million).

Eric calls his parents and says he’ll be working for the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in Columbia, a two-hour drive from the College of Charleston, where he’ll be a senior this fall.

Authorized by Congress in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society program, the MEP provides educational services — from supplemental classes to private tutoring — to migrant children who struggle to keep up as they move from one school to another.

“I think I’ll be translating documents and helping teachers,” Eric tells his parents.

He’s right about the Columbia part. The rest is just a guess, and not a very good one.


Eric is assigned to the Lowcountry District of the South Carolina MEP. His training in a sleek office tower in Columbia is brief and loaded with jargon: His job is to ID and R (identify and register) OSYs (out of school youth) on COEs (Certificates of Enrollment) then return to camps to teach ESL (English as a Second Language). That’s about the extent of formal training.

Zach Taylor is Eric's supervisor at the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which used SAF interns for this first time this year.
Zach Taylor is Eric’s supervisor at the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which used SAF interns for this first time this year.

Most of what he learns comes during ride-alongs with his supervisor, Zach Taylor. In contrast to Eric’s slim frame, Zach Taylor has the upper body of a weightlifter. With his Anglo skin and crew-cut hair, farmworkers used to mistake him for a cop. He fixed that by buying a baseball cap with Viva Mexico! on the bill. He never goes to a camp without it.

Zach is only a few years older than Eric. When he was fifteen, his father, an English teacher, moved the family from a small town in Maryland to Costa Rica, where Zach developed a fluency for Spanish and Latin American culture.

This is the first year the MEP is using SAF interns, and when Zach heard about it he had some doubts. Could they handle the long hours? The minimal supervision? Were they only here to grind a political axe or make a statement about social justice?

Zach knows as well as anyone how bad farmworkers have it, but he can’t stand so-called “toxic charity” where wealthy people give stuff away or drop in for a vacation service project. He thinks what farmworkers need most is empowerment. And that, he learned from his dad, begins with education.


Eric peers at a Google Earth map that Zach uses to record locations of farmworker camps across the state.

Fiddling with the controls, Eric thinks how easy this job will be with a map like this. “Which ones do we hit first?” he asks.

“Dude. These have already been ID and R’d,” says Zach. “That’s how they got on the map. You gotta find new camps.”

The term “camp” is misleading. It just refers to any place a farmworker might live. Finding a camp is all about profiling, Zach explains. You look for clues at rundown houses and trailers on the side of the road: clotheslines, cars with out-of-state plates and windows covered with sheets.

“I remember the first house we stopped at,” recalls Eric. “The house was right on the highway. Very run down, and a sewer line just coming right out the side of the house. There was sewage spreading onto the yard.”

A migrant farmer's home in North Carolina.
A migrant farmer’s home in North Carolina.

Inside was a Latino family with four young kids. Eric filled out COE forms as Zach explained the education program to the family and handed out extras he always keeps in the car: hygiene kits containing things like diapers, wipes, toothpaste. The mom was delighted and Eric was impressed.

“She called her two sisters and some neighbors over. We signed up three or four families, right on that one stop.”

Later they approached a house with all the right signs: clotheslines, windows blocked by droopy bed sheets and a car with Florida plates.

“Whaddya want!?”

The first thing they noticed was the stocky man’s pale skin and sleeveless white t-shirt, followed by the face of a woman, equally irritated, yanking the door wider to see who it was.

“Sorry,” they explained in retreat. “Wrong address.”


One evening Eric is looking out of Zach’s slow-moving Hyundai at some trailer homes. Only nobody calls them trailer homes. Just trailers. Which is fitting: Farmworkers are not so much housed in these aging metal boxes as stored overnight.

Eric wonders why he and Zach are here. It’s already late and the workers are inside, probably watching soccer and drinking Bud Light — the blue metal empties are everywhere. But Zach insisted they visit before calling it a night.

Just beyond the trailers is an old building made of wood, its shape vaguely familiar to Eric. They approach it on foot.

“Was this a stable?” asks Eric.

Zach bangs the door. “It still is.”

Like most stables, the central passageway is lined on either side by stalls. But most stables keep horses in their stalls.

These contain men.

It’s the kind of camp Zach calls “under the radar.” Unlike camps for workers on temporary H2A visas, which are supposed to meet minimal housing standards (though enforcement is often lacking), these out-of-sight hovels are for undocumented workers who know better than to complain about accommodations.

At under-the-radars, roofs might leak, refrigerators may not keep food cold enough to ward off gut-wrenching bacteria, and the drinking water is often unfit for human consumption.

Eric notices an air conditioner, refrigerator and microwave all connected by a single extension cord. Were all three running at once it’s a safe bet this dry wooden structure would go up in flames. The only water comes from a spigot outside, at the end of a pipe in the ground, and there’s neither a bathroom nor outhouse in sight.

Eric knows they could report this place to state inspectors. He also knows they won’t. He’s heard of outreach workers forced to contend with a cruel compromise: If you report every housing violation, the grower might not let you back.

Zach introduces Eric to a farmworker with a smiling but weather-beaten face a man of sixty might sport. Eric guesses he’s probably more like forty.

On Zach’s last visit the man implored him to sign up his teenage daughter for English classes. She is very interested, he insisted, but wasn’t at the camp that day.

¿Cómo se llama su hija?” Eric asks the cheerful man. What is your daughter’s name?

“Linda,” he answers. “Se llama Linda.” (All farmworker names have been changed for this story.)

¿Y dónde está Linda?” asks Eric. And where is Linda?

The smile falls off the father’s face. Again the girl isn’t here and it’s not clear where she is or even if her dad knows. His daughter appears to be missing.

Where Eric grew up, a missing child would set off alarms throughout the community. Police would be called and radio stations would broadcast Amber Alerts.

Eric is pretty sure those things won’t happen here.


After Zach departs for the other end of Lowcountry, where he lives, Eric, now on his own, finds ID & R more challenging. He might register one or two workers on a good day. And not every day is a good day.

Zach helps by calling and texting with places Eric might try, including known camps that haven’t been visited for a while. One is a cluster of trailers alongside a wooded highway.

Gabriela came from Mexico as a young girl so she speaks English reasonably well — a relief to Eric. Even with his strong Spanish it’s less work to speak in English.

Her four young boys swarm to Eric like puppies. He gives them books, asks about school and takes them on a nature walk at the edge of the trailer cluster. It reminds him of his own childhood escapes to the woods at the end of his street in Rockville.

Escorting the boys back to the trailer, Eric sees elements of normalcy in this family. The kids and their parents look healthy, and Gabriela seems to have things under control. She even drives the kids around in a minivan just like his own mom did. In another setting, he realizes, Gabriela might be just another soccer mom.

Standing at the door of her trailer, Eric asks Gabriela about the kids’ school when she interrupts with a question of her own.

“Do you have any food?”

This is no soccer mom. Gabriela’s refrigerator is broken and the crew leader hasn’t paid her yet. Some employers cheat undocumented immigrants and withhold pay, she explains, or pay less than minimum wage. It’s happened to her.

Gabriela and her kids have only ramen noodles and cereal — without milk — for dinner. Eric fetches a USDA emergency food box, donated by the Lowcountry Food Bank, from the trunk of his car.

Carrying the heavy box of dry goods, Eric navigates all manner of debris, spills and damp clothes hanging from a clothesline strung inside the trailer. Gabriela apologizes for the mess. Eric assures her it’s fine.


Eric had thought seventy songs on his iPod would get him through the summer. But with hours each day behind the wheel, by week three he’s hitting the skip button on the opening chords of even his favorites, from Fleetwood Mac to the Cave Singers.

He turns to audio books (free of charge, courtesy of Pirate Bay) starting with Hard Times by Charles Dickens. After that, Great Expectations.

Listening to tales of economic cruelty and social injustice in nineteenth-century England, Eric cruises the Carolina blacktop like a detective, viewing every rundown trailer as a potential opportunity to register some workers, teach some English or just hand out some food.


One evening Eric pulled off the highway at the sight of several Latino men kicking a soccer ball in the orange light of sunset. He asked the guys what team they followed in Mexico (Eric knows them all) and complimented them on their technique.

They asked if he played fútbol and he responded by gesturing for the ball. Seeing the heavy boots on his feet, they expected him to catch it with his hands. He caught it on the tip of a boot, tapped it to the other boot, and dribbled it perfectly before sending it back their way.

This impressed the guys even more than his excellent Spanish. He signed up every last one.

A group of workers at class led by Eric and others.
A group of workers at class led by Eric and others.

Eric’s soccer experience came in handy more than once. His comfort talking with strangers also helped. He stopped people at roadside fruit stands and gas stations, and hung out at stores where many Latino people shopped.

Following a lead one day from a tienda owner, Eric found a large trailer park he didn’t recognize. The camp wasn’t on Zach’s Google Earth map and may have never been scouted. He put some extra COEs on his clipboard.

Mija es una estudiante excelente,” the man at the door of his trailer beams with pride, introducing Eric to his teenage daughter. She makes very good grades but, Eric learns, they have no money for college. After high school she’ll work in los campos. The fields.

Where Eric went to high school, going to work after graduating was practically unheard of. You went to college. And for the handful of kids who did go straight to work from Richard Montgomery High, it sure wasn’t to pick vegetables.

Eric produces his clipboard and asks for their names. But the man just smiles and shakes his head. Zach told him to expect this. Someone in the family is probably undocumented, and Eric’s assurance that the information will be used only by the school system does no good.

On his way out, Eric apologizes for not being able to register the family for MEP services, but does ask the girl if she has access to a computer.

“Yes,” she answers. “At the library.”

“Google CAMP,” he tells her. “It’s the College Assistance Migrant Program.” Eric learned about the program from farmworking families, some of whom used it to get into college.

Farmworking parents Jorge and Luisa invite Eric into a front room packed with piles of clothing, secondhand toys and furniture that looks reclaimed from a dump. The arms of an overstuffed loveseat are worn down to exposed wood.

Their daughter, Rosita, is an energetic first-grader who seems as typical as any other, except for one thing: Luisa has to wave a hand in her daughter’s face to get her attention. Rosita is deaf.

Eric asks if she knows sign language but her parents don’t seem to know what he’s asking. He makes a mental note: Sign language tutor!

Eric gets to work. There is something fulfilling, bordering on selfishness, about helping someone who needs exactly what you have to give. Eric feels that buzz as he prepares a fresh COE.

Jorge and Luisa go silent. Peering at Eric’s clipboard, they too, don’t want to give their names. Moments pass. He promises the information will be used only by the schools. More moments pass and, again, Eric senses opportunity vanishing.

He wonders if everyone at this camp will refuse to give their names. This camp is a waste of time, he thinks.

Then they agree. “Está bien. Te damos los nombres.” We’ll give you our names.

He races to complete the form before they change their minds. He just needs to confirm they meet the three MEP requirements. Working in agriculture? Check. Children ages three to twenty-two? Check. Moved in the last thirty-six months?

“¿Cuánto tiempo han vivido aquí?” he asks. How long have you lived here?

“Cinco años,” says Jorge. Five years.

If this is true then they’ve lived here too long and don’t qualify.

Are you sure? Yes. You have lived here, in this same place, for five years? Yes. But didn’t you go to another place to work, even for a short time, like even for one night? Not even one, single, night? Eric feels his frustration turning to disbelief.

Driving away, Eric wonders if he should have just fudged the form. No. Zach says everyone suffers if the state does one of its routine checks. He was right not to take a chance.

He did the ID but couldn’t do the R.

One day Eric signed up an entire family — by invitation. A crew leader had called the MEP and asked to have his children registered, and the office dispatched Eric his house.

Also known as patrones or contractistas, crew leaders play a key role in the farmworking community. They are like the vassals of Medieval Europe, paying homage to their lord the grower who owns the land but wants nothing to do with supervising his peon farmworkers.

Crew leaders also allow a grower to shed virtually all responsibility for anything having to do with a farmworker. Wage complaints? Talk to the crew leader. Housing complaints? Documentation issues? Medical needs? Talk to the crew leader.

Listening to the muscular patron introduce his family, Eric sees things here he doesn’t see in other farmworker housing, things like carpeting, air-conditioning and a flat-screen TV.

Eric also notices a bedroom door ajar — with someone peeking out. It’s a girl with a low-cut shirt who looks to be in her late teens. When the girl spots Eric eyeing her, she quickly closes the door.

After Eric signs up the kids he asks if there are any other youth in the house. No, answers the crew leader, nobody else. Eric waits for the crew leader to mention the girl in the bedroom. But he doesn’t.

A few days later Eric is delivering another box of food to Gabriela. Her sister Elena is there, telling about a bossy crew leader acting strangely to her friend, a nineteen-year old girl. According to Elena, the much older crew leader is controlling her friend too much and even telling her what to wear. Eric hears Elena refer to a low-cut shirt.

Eric asks the girl’s name. “Linda,” says Elena. “Se llama Linda.”

Linda?

Eric recalls the girl peeking out the bedroom at crew leader’s house, and the missing teenage daughter of the farmworker living in the stable. And now Gabriela and her sister are talking about a nineteen-year old girl and an overbearing crew leader.

Might these girls all be the same Linda? He asks the women.

Sí por supuesto,” they answer. “Of course it’s her.” According to the women, Linda used to live in the stables but now lives at the crew leader’s house.

Workers in the tobacco fields.
Workers in the tobacco fields.

Eric also learns this crew leader is a coyote, smuggling undocumented workers into the U.S. for huge fees. Coyotes have been known to entice impoverished clients with the promise of a good job, convincing them they will have money to pay the coyote in no time.

Then, when the workers arrive and learn the jobs are not so good, they have to pay off their debt another way.

Eric relays all this to Zach and together they formulate a disturbing theory: Linda’s father can’t pay for the family’s crossing — the summer of 2013 is one of the rainiest anyone can remember, and farmworkers often don’t get paid when rain keeps them off the fields — so his daughter is paying off the debt in sexual servitude to the coyote.

It’s only a theory, but a plausible one.


At the beginning of summer Eric promised his girlfriend Sara he’d come back to Charleston on weekends. He enjoys the first few trips back, hanging out with Sara and enjoying burritos and tequila shots at Juanita Greenberg’s Nacho Royale, a popular hangout near campus.

But it doesn’t take long for Eric to notice a surreal disconnect between affluent Charleston and the much larger part of Lowcountry where farmworkers live.

“It’s only twenty miles from the center of Charleston to a tomato pickers’ camp on Jones Island,” says Eric. “And it’s like nobody in Charleston knows. Or cares.”

Walking past a King Street shop selling honey for $100 a jar, Eric thinks about the emergency food boxes. Seeing shoes at another store going for $700, Eric recalls opening the trunk of his car filled with donated clothes at a camp and watching women rush to pick through it.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster, seeing people with not a care in the world,” says Eric. “Even to my friends at school it was like, ‘Oh where am I going to go drinking tonight?’ And I was just talking to a family and their main concern is how to pay for food.”

Zach kept his promise to Linda’s father, on a visit back to the area, to help his daughter with English.

He called the crew leader and got the okay to meet with Linda and give her an MP3 player with self-guided English lessons. It also gave him an opportunity to learn more of her story, a story he shares with Eric.

Linda traveled to the U.S. from Honduras with her dad, partly by foot but mostly on the top of a train. She called it el tren de la muerte. The death train.

When they arrived in South Carolina they took shelter in a horse stall at the stable. There, she was the only woman among fourteen men. Her father offered her as a prostitute.

Eric struggled with what to do with this new information. He recognized his limitations. Linda was nineteen, no longer a child. And maybe, he wondered, she wasn’t being kept by the crew leader so much as protected from a demon of a father. He didn’t know the full story.

He never learned full stories.

One farmworker claimed to have miscarried in the fields when a crew leader wouldn’t give her a break. Was it true? Another woman had a face covered in what appeared to be bruises but she claimed it was a birthmark. Really?

More than once he was forbidden entry to camps with flimsy excuses from growers when workers were expecting him for lessons after hours, even after showing his MEP credentials. It made him think of slavery.

As summer drew to a close Eric knew he could only do so much. He was determined to help as many people as he could, starting with someone who seemed to need it the most. But he’d have to bend some rules.


Rosita sat on the floor in her silent world, playing with her baby sister. Her parents hadn’t expected to see Eric again. But here he was handing out books and food and hygiene kits and treating them much like any qualifying family.

“Puedo buscar una escuela especial para su hija. ¿Quieren que lo haga?” “I can look for a special school for your daughter. Do you want that?”

Of course they said yes.

The Kudu coffeehouse on Vanderhorst Street, where Eric goes for free wifi on his weekends in Charleston, is across from St. Matthews Church. Eric is so used to the bells he hardly notices them booming every fifteen minutes as he Googles for schools for the deaf.

And maybe the clanging from the house of worship brings good fortune into the coffee shop, because Eric can hardly believe his luck when he finds the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind and gives them a call.

The principal describes a program especially for children like Rosita — free of charge — that extends through high school. It will change her life, Eric thinks. It will change her entire family’s life, all for free. They even provide transportation.

Luisa and Jorge listen as Eric describes the school. Thankful and intrigued, they interrupt him with gracias over and over.

The school is far away, Eric explains, but the school will pick up Rosita on Sundays and return her on Thursdays. Eric reminds them everything is free of charge — lodging, meals, and a private education tailored to her needs. But the parents have stopped listening.

“No,” they interrupt. “Ella no puede asistir a esa escuela.” She cannot go to this school.

Eric repeats his pitch, emphasizing how the school is just for children like Rosita. He says they need to visit — they have to visit. He’ll drive them there and back. “¿Cuándo podemos ir?” When can we go?

They tell him again: Rosita cannot go to this school. Eric wants to tell them they are making a big mistake. But he doesn’t. He can tell the parents won’t budge.

Walking to his car, Eric realizes what he hadn’t considered: Rosita can neither hear nor read — in any language. Nobody could explain why she was being taken away from her mom, dad and baby sister. The first time she was put on that bus, Eric realized, would be not just baffling but terrifying.

Walking to his car he hears someone yelling his name. It’s the girl he told about CAMP.

“Hey, I looked up the program like you said,” she tells him. “I never heard about it but I got the application.”

Eric wishes her luck and thanks her for telling him.


“Sure, it’s cliché to say I grew a lot this summer,” Eric tells me. “But I did.”

We’re at the Kudu, talking about the summer between bell chimes from St. Matthews.

“A lot of things I used to find really fun and fulfilling, like going out and getting hammered on the weekends, I find trivial now. It’s like, why do that when there’s actually real stuff to do?”

After his last days with SAF, and a celebration on the lawn of Duke University where Safistas gathered to swap stories, eat and dance late into the night, Eric joined his family at the beach to unwind. And to jump from a plane.

Plummeting toward the earth at terminal velocity, Eric feels the skin on his face ripple. The rush of air is like sticking your head from a speeding car — only way more intense. And the view from high above the Outer Banks of North Carolina is stunning: Endless blue ocean on one side and vast, flat land — farmland — on the other.

There are thousands of farms down there. The last time Eric fell to earth he didn’t think about those farms and certainly not the farmworkers. Now he can’t help it.

Eric Britton on the dance floor at the SAF end-of-summer celebration.
Eric Britton on the dance floor at the SAF end-of-summer celebration.

A Call of the Wild Ends Too Soon

woodsThe Chapel Hill News and Raleigh News & Observer, March 8, 2009…

The reports a while back of an improbable cougar sighting in Chapel Hill reminded me of my own series of backyard encounters with a feral feline. Four years ago my family moved here from Chicago into the Oaks Villas, a tidy subdivision alongside the waterfowl impoundment on the eastern edge of town. The swampy and heavily wooded land surrounding our neighborhood is home to all sorts of wildlife that urbanites like us rarely see: frogs, snakes, hawks, owls. And of course there are plenty of deer, whose numbers swell each year until the hunters arrive.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about hunting. Sometimes I wonder if it is just a vestigial and violent human instinct we could now do without. But I also realize the crucial role hunters play in maintaining balance in the modern ecosystem, one in which natural predators of animals such as deer are all but gone. In any event, it did take me some getting used to living so close to a game land. When a quiet breakfast is interrupted by the sound of gunshots, part of me still wants to drop to the floor and call 911.

One evening we heard something even more alarming than gunfire. It was the piercing wail of some animal crying out—screaming actually—coming from just inside the woods. Our cavalier spaniel Raleigh went absolutely berserk, lunging so hard at the windows I thought he just might crash through. Stepping tentatively onto the back porch, we tried to figure out what in the world could be wailing like this. We didn’t go dare go outside during the couple of minutes it continued, at least not that first night.

The next night we heard it again, just after sunset. This time it lasted several minutes longer and I went out for a look. Directing a flashlight at the source of the cry, I saw a stout furry animal about a foot and a half long, with the pointy ears of a cat but no sign of a tail. It hissed at the beam of light, absolutely fearless, which is more than I could say for myself. I snapped off the flashlight and danced my way back up the stairs and into the house, where a quick bit of Googling told us we had a bobcat.

A bobcat! My wife and two kids feared for little Raleigh, but I just thought it was the coolest thing yet about living in Chapel Hill. It appears the cat was just doing what bobcats do, patrolling the perimeter of its home. Some weeks we’d hear the cat two or three nights in a row. Other times nearly a week would go by between visits.

The cat always came at night, until one morning about six or eight weeks after the first encounter. I was sitting at my computer beside an open window just after sunrise when I heard the bobcat, this time a ways off in the distance. It was the same sound as always, which was no longer jarring but oddly comforting. I suppose it had simply become one of the sounds of home. In any event it put a smile on my face as I stepped close to the window for a listen. That’s when I heard the gunshot. Just a single round, its sound echoing off the trees, followed by silence. A very long silence.

I waited several days before telling my family. Every evening I’d listen for the cat, hoping beyond hope that the gunshot and silencing of the cat was just coincidental timing. But never again did I hear the unmistakable sound of our bobcat. We do still hear the remarkable bard owls, which sound like squawking monkeys when they get riled up in their mating ritual. Every spring the ensemble of chorus frogs gets to singing so loud you can hardly talk over it. And Raleigh even managed one afternoon to get too close to a copperhead, which gave him a nice fat lip and valuable life lesson.

It is all still quite beautiful here. It was more beautiful when there was a bobcat out there, but still I count my blessings for getting to live where we do.