Sunday, October 12, 2008

Illegal aliens hard at work on north farms (Watertown Daily Times)

Illegal aliens hard at work on north farms

Francisco and Raymundo are preoccupied when visitors enter the large Jefferson County barn where they're working on a sunny Wednesday morning.

They are among a handful of Hispanic workers moving along rows of docile cows, herding them in and out of place, attaching and detaching milking equipment and hosing manure off the barn's cement floor.

Francisco is a stocky 33-year-old in manure-splattered coveralls and gumboots, while Raymundo, a lanky, pock-marked 18-year-old, works in a T-shirt and jeans.

Francisco pauses when he sees Dr. Mark J. Thomas, a veterinarian with Countryside Veterinary Clinic in Lowville, who asks in Spanish if both men would be willing to describe their lives as illegal aliens working in the north country. Francisco nods, although a half hour passes before they have time to sit down in the small, bare room that serves as the farm's office.

Through Dr. Thomas's translation, the men recount their journey into the United States by foot, van and smuggler. They talk about the lack of jobs in their Mexican hometown of Veracruz, the loneliness of living far from home, the dreams they're working toward — a house, a store, an education.

Although they smile frequently, both men describe days full of hard, tedious manual labor, the only way they know how to improve their own lives and those of their families.

"There's no money. There's no work" in Mexico, Francisco says. "My friends helped me come here."

Both estimate they work up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, but say they'd work every day if the owner of the farm would let them. Even on their day off, they rarely leave the farmhouse they share with other workers.

Francisco and Raymundo are at the heart of a labor polemic. Critics contend that north country farmers are contributing to a system that depresses wages, fills domestic positions with illegal foreigners and promotes human trafficking.

Yet, a growing legion of political and agricultural leaders say that unless federal laws are changed to permit farmers to hire more workers like Francisco and Raymundo, the north country's farming industry — where labor is increasingly hard to find and expenses are overwhelming profits — will collapse.

The New York Farm Bureau estimates there are up to 25,000 migrant workers in the state, and Jefferson County Agricultural Coordinator Jay M. Matteson estimates there are 300 to 400 migrant workers in Jefferson County alone.

The reason there are no hard numbers is simple. Farmers fear that openly admitting they hire illegal workers could result in raids by federal officials, deported employees, ruined livelihoods and jail, said Julie R. Berry of the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition.

Ms. Berry, an agricultural outreach coordinator, said that even printing a farmer's first name could lead federal officials to a farm.

"It's pretty easy for people who know the farms and know the farms that are hiring Hispanics to know who it is immediately," she said.

The trend from domestic to foreign — and usually illegal — workers started in the mid-1990s, according to a 2005 Cornell University study. Researchers spoke to 111 Hispanic workers on 60 dairy farms in the state and found that the vast majority of employers had hired the first of their Hispanic crews after January 2000.

"Whenever a new practice is adopted, there are always early adopters," said Thomas R. Maloney, senior extension associate in the Department of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, who co-authored the study.

"Other farmers look at what their neighbors are doing," he said. "If it's working, then they're willing to give it a try."

Dr. Thomas estimated that his combined clients employ more than 100 Hispanic workers and that the workers have enabled farmers to expand both the number of milking rounds and the size of their farms.

"If you drive by any large dairy in Jefferson County, you could almost assume there are Mexicans working there," Dr. Thomas said.
■ ■ ■

Anne, a thin, energetic woman, never thought she would be able to expand her dairy farm beyond a small herd of 100 milking cows.

To get to even that point, Anne and her husband had relied on an Amish neighbor. When he quit, the couple went in search of local workers and encountered problem after problem.

New hires would not show up for work, they would ask to be paid under the table or even call from jail and request bail money, Anne said.

With no competent workers, Anne and her husband became sleep-deprived, overwhelmed and miserable. They were stressed to the point where their marriage was in jeopardy, she said.

Then, one day, a vehicle pulled into the barnyard.

"A young Hispanic man got out and, in broken English, asked me, 'I need work. Do you need help?' And I literally threw up my hands and said, 'Fine. Yes. Today,'" Anne said. "He was back the next day and started. It was the beginning of something new."

Anne, who asked that her real name not be used, said that she and her husband had no choice.

"I did not come to Hispanics because I said, 'Gee, this is going to be fun to be operating in a gray area,'" Anne said. "I came to them out of necessity."

The desperation of dairy farmers who need reliable, knowledgeable employees to tend their herds is equaled only by their fear that any open acknowledgment could have dire consequences if authorities decide to raid their farms.

"A lot of the farms I've worked with haven't necessarily wanted to utilize Hispanic labor because of the issues with immigration," Dr. Thomas said. "Eventually they say, 'Well, we can have dedicated, hardworking employees who are always here on time' and have decided to go that route."

Dr. Thomas said that any dairy farm suddenly losing workers would create "an animal welfare issue."

"Just imagine, those workers are responsible for cleaning, milking and taking care of calves and so forth," he said. "Sure, (the farm owners) would make do and probably find family members and whoever to fill in. But it would be a real issue, beyond any other kind of disaster you can imagine happening on the dairy."

Since the consequences are so grave, reports of raids can send shock waves through the agricultural community.

On Sept. 28, the Rochester Alliance for Immigrant Rights reported that 40 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided trailers in Sodus and arrested 11 immigrants and their children. As of Sept. 30, nine men were still being held.

In a statement about the incident, RAIR's Robert Resto said the men were farm workers whose "only crime is to work very hard from sun to sun."
■ ■ ■

The history of large-scale temporary farm worker programs in the United States can be traced to 1942. The United States had just entered World War II and needed manpower for farms. The Bracero temporary worker program invited Mexicans to take agricultural jobs across the border.

Bracero lasted until 1964, when it was replaced by H-2, which expanded to include nonagriculture jobs in places where not enough domestic workers could be found. Under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the temporary worker program was divided into H-2A (for agricultural workers) and H-2B (for everyone else).

Aimed at managing the ebb and flow of seasonal laborers, H-2A was framed for production and harvest jobs lasting less than a year. No provisions were made for longer-term work, a necessity for year-round dairy operations.

Agriculture groups recently have called for further reforms to make H-2A applicable to the dairy industry.

Last fall, officials from Farm Credit of Western New York said at a congressional hearing that an estimated 800 farms statewide were vulnerable to a severe labor shortage. As many as 445 dairy farms, with 7,000 on-farm jobs, were at risk of going out of business, they said, a shortage they blamed on a lack of domestic workers.

"Not everybody in this country is accustomed to or wants to work with cows," said Julie C. Suarez, director of public policy for Farm Bureau of New York. "Because of demographic shifts, and cultural shifts as well, we tend to rely on migrant labor not just for seasonal jobs, but for full-time jobs on dairy farms."

Two measures recently introduced to address the labor problem, Ag Jobs and the Emergency Agriculture Relief Act, have faltered at the federal level.

The short-lived Ag Jobs was heavily criticized as a form of amnesty for undocumented farm workers. Its predecessor, the relief act, included a provision for 1.35 million farm workers to continue working for five years. The relief act was removed from the Senate's Iraq War supplemental funding bill on procedural grounds.

Jefferson County Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, who supported the act, said the decline in available domestic labor over the past two years has been "of real concern."

"We're not looking to bend rules here," he said. "The lion's share of these workers aren't looking for citizenship anyway. They're looking to come and provide service that's necessary up here and return to their families."

Not everyone agrees on the roots of the labor problem. A lack of domestic workers exists, local agriculture experts note, even with average wages estimated at $11.32 per hour, including benefits, in 2007.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has pushed for legislation against legal and illegal immigration, argues that farmers already have "access to all the foreign labor that they want."

"Our view has been there is no shortage of labor in the United States," Media Director Ira H. Mehlman said. "What you have is a main industry that decided it doesn't want to compete in the local market for labor."

Mr. Mehlman argues that hiring illegal workers is a way for farmers to get out of paying equitable wages and benefits, while shortchanging the tax system and ignoring federally enforced working conditions.

"The federal government shouldn't be regarded as a personnel agency, to provide you with workers you want, at the time you want them, at wages you want to pay them," Mr. Mehlman said.

The 2005 Cornell University study found that Hispanic employees worked an average of 62 hours per week. Workers told the researchers that they preferred to work up to 66 hours and said they would leave their current employment and move to another farm if they could not work at least 55 hours.

"That's a very important thing to note," said study co-author Mr. Maloney. "A lot of these folks are young Mexican men or young Hispanic men, and go to employers and say they want to work lots of hours so they can make as much money as possible while they're here and send money back to their families."

At the time the study was conducted, such workers' wages ranged from $5.50 to $10 per hour, with a mean pay of $6.87.

The minimum wage rate in New York increased to $7.15 per hour in 2007. That year, a Northern New York Dairy Farm Business Summary from Cornell University put the average salary of a Jefferson County farm employee at $11.32 per hour, including benefits.

Mr. Maloney has taken trips to Mexico where he's seen the fruits of work in the United States: expanded farms with coffee plants, new herds of cattle, newly built homes.

"The object for many, not all, is to create a better life back home so they can go home and have a business and have a better lifestyle than what they have now," he said.
■ ■ ■

For Francisco and Raymundo, the journey to the United States came with significant dangers.

Francisco said he paid $2,000 to have a guide known as a "coyote" smuggle him across the border, after which he wandered in the desert for four days with a small group of people. None of them had food or water, he said.

In Texas, he caught a bus to Buffalo and then made his way to Jefferson County.

Dr. Thomas, who speaks routinely with Hispanic workers such as Francisco and Raymundo, describes such workers as "extremely motivated, hardworking." He said he sympathizes with their difficult decision to live in a foreign land, far from their homes, family, children and culture.

"I almost equate it to a deployment, so to speak, but for many years," he said. "They're in a country where they're nervous or afraid at times."

Francisco and Raymundo both said that they had come to Northern New York because there was no work or money to be found in their hometowns. Having grown up in rural areas, the men said, they understood cows and found dairy work easy to learn.

Francisco said he supports six children and his wife with his earnings. He's managed to purchase a small shop in Mexico, which his wife runs, and hopes to save enough so that he can return there.

Raymundo, who also sends money to his family, said he would like to save enough so that he can go back to school.

It has been difficult for the workers to relate such dreams to the local community. Francisco said he's met almost no one who speaks Spanish. Neither he nor Raymundo has time to take English classes, he said.

Interpreters who work on farms across Central and Northern New York say that the biggest problem among undocumented workers is isolation.

Lupita, a certified interpreter who asked that only her middle name be used to protect her clients and the trust they place in her, said illegal workers are reluctant to do anything, such as visit a doctor or talk to a police officer, which might draw attention to their status.

Their reluctance makes them particularly vulnerable when it comes to legal and health issues, she said.

"To me, they should be able to ride a bike down the road freely, without thinking, 'Oh, my God, is immigration going to stop me?'" Lupita said. "You should be able to do that without being deported."

Lupita imagines that a program that allows dairy workers greater freedoms to live and work in the United States could be more beneficial for everyone.

"Think about it. If there was a choice where you could stay in our country with your family, and make it, would you go through that?" Lupita said. "They really have no choice."

■ / /

In 1997, after the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided dozens of farms in Western and Central New York, even legitimate workers were reported to have quit and moved on.

A New York Times story about the incident described crops rotting away in fields for lack of hands to pick them.

It is hard to know how extensive the reach of agencies such as the ICE has been in the decade since. Michael Gilhooly, ICE's director of communications for the Northeast region, said his office does not keep track of the number of arrests or raids in particular counties.

"We only keep records for the entire state, except for the New York City area jurisdiction," he said. Mr. Gilhooly did not respond to requests to provide the state numbers, although he denied that there had been any increase in focus on dairy farms, as local agriculture experts contend.

"It's natural for people to worry that law enforcement, in this case ICE, is focused only on their industry," said Lev J. Kubiak, special agent in charge at the Buffalo ICE office. "Really, nothing could be further from the truth. This year alone we've done major work-site investigations nationwide; very few of them had anything to do with the farming industry."

Mr. Kubiak said the concept that an entire contingent of workers will disappear due to an ICE raid, a deeply held fear among farmers, is false. Instead, farms more often lose their work forces after a single illegal worker is arrested and warns his fellow employees with a call from the police station, he said.

"We're trying to encourage a culture of compliance," Mr. Kubiak said. "When people hire people illegally, and do so knowingly, they are creating an incentive for people to be smuggled into the United States and live here illegally."

Farmers can avoid hiring illegal employees by working with ICE and by using the Internet-based E-Verify system to check that Social Security numbers and names match, he said.

"A lot of times, in many instances, there is a willful blindness when there is a strong suspicion or concern that the workers are illegal," Mr. Kubiak said.

"I do know that it's particularly difficult for the dairy farmers if they knowingly or accidentally hire illegal aliens and those aliens get arrested and they're not there to work," he said. "I would hope that would be incentive for dairy farmers to take every step possible to make sure workers are legally working in the United States."

Like Mr. Mehlman, Mr. Kubiak said that illegal workers may also be paid less money, have fewer benefits and work outside the oversight of regulatory bodies such as the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration.

Anne, who employs four Guatemalan workers among a staff of 13, disputes such charges. In fact, she said she provides more benefits to her foreign workers than to her local employees.

To make sure workers want to stay at their farm, Anne and her husband provide housing, heat, electricity, telephones, satellite television and a four-wheeler for employees to use during their time off.

The Cornell University survey of Hispanic workers found that most employers provide similar benefits.

All four Guatemalans have shown her documentation, such as photo IDs and Social Security cards, to prove they are in the country legally, Anne said. But Anne also buys groceries and other necessities for them, a point that she said could indicate their illegal status.

"Frankly, all four guys ask me to bring everything in," Anne said. "That's their signal to me that they know that their documents aren't going to pass muster."

Anne said her Hispanic workers pay their taxes, a point she bolstered with copies of their and her neighbors' W-2 forms. Rather than siphoning off benefits to which they were not entitled, Anne argues, her employees contribute part of their wages to a system they cannot, or will not, use.

"They're not slave labor. They're well compensated," she said. "They pay their taxes, they support their families, just like you do, just like I do."

Raids or other enforcement actions remain constant fears.

In the past year, her farm has received three phone calls from family dairy farms to let her know they were shutting down operations and selling their cows, moves she attributed to a lack of workers. She said that hiring Hispanic laborers, whether they be legal or illegal, is the only way her farm has found to survive.

"I get very fearful. I get very apprehensive," she said. "The hard reality is I'm not sure I would keep doing it on my own."

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