As lawmakers in the Senate's Judiciary Committee debate the immigration reform bill released last month, farmers in New York State are hoping to find enough workers to fully staff their operations. It's a yearly struggle in New York and nationwide and according to a report by Farm Credit East, more than 1000 farms in New York could close or shrink by two-thirds if immigration laws were fully enforced.
The H-2A visa program
Anyone looking to hire foreign workers for the planting and harvesting seasons can go through the Department of Labor's H-2A guest worker visa program. But it is often a source of frustration for farmers.
“The current H-2A guest worker program is a nightmare for many farmers in New York and nationally," says the farm credit cooperative's vice president Bob Smith.
Smith says the program is too expensive, applicants have to pay for the workers’ travel to and from the farm and provide housing. And the Department of Labor, which approves requests for farm workers, often responds late to applications.
“Many times, farms have gotten workers after their harvesting period or after their planting period and that costs farmers collectively millions and millions of dollars each year,” says Smith.
In 2011, about 4,000 guest worker visas were issued to farm laborers coming to New York, about 7 percent of the total full time and seasonal positions on New York farms.
“We have lots of illegal immigrants who are doing the work now although they’re chased by INS, ICE, the immigration service, particularly in New York because we have a border with Canada,” says Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).
Schumer is a member of the group of eight, the four Democratic and four Republican senators behind immigration reform legislation. The bill is facing stiff opposition in the Senate, and has yet to go to the Republican-controlled House of Representatiaves.
Under the group of eight bill, farm workers in the country illegally since 2011 would be offered legal status. And a new guest worker program would be created to supply all agriculture with new laborers.
The bill includes legalization provisions for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and a separate path for children whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally.
The new guest worker visa would last three years. That means farmers would not have to reapply every year, oftentimes just to be able to bring the same workers back. And the guest workers would be able to take jobs on other farms with the same visa, something the current system doesn’t allow.
“And so this is kind of a basic right – the right to move, the right to leave one’s workplace,” says Leanne Tory-Murphy of the Workers Justice Center of New York.
Rights for farm workers
Murphy says the current system of guest workers and undocumented migrants has turned farm work into a job that Americans don’t want.
“You can see other industries that are equally dangerous, equally dirty, equally hard, like mining for example, which is still a mostly American workforce because it’s unionized, there are protections, the pay is much better,” says Murphy.
For both undocumented workers and their employers, there’s always the threat of a crackdown by immigration.
Employers check their workers’ status with the same I-9 form that every new hire has to fill out. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, audits of I-9 forms by immigration authorities have jumped from just 3 in 2004 to 3,000 last year.
Jim Allen is head of the New York Apple Growers Association. He says immigration officials are a constant threat to his members’ employees.
“In the past, they’ve staked out laundromats, they’ve staked out child care, they’ve sat in front of the Catholic Church on Saturday night,” says Allen.
Allen says his industry, where every apple is picked by hand, relies on migrant labor and targeting them isn’t helping anyone.
“They’re very diligent, they’re very conscientious, they work very hard, they work circles around anybody else. And they pay taxes, by the way,” says Allen.
Allen says apple growers are expecting a bumper crop this year, after a bad year last year. And, like always, they’re wondering if they’ll be able to find enough workers.
Salvador is 32 years old and from the Mexican state of Veracruz. He’s been in the U.S. illegally since 2008, working on a dairy farm 20 minutes from Ithaca. He didn’t want to give his real name.
Salvador lives in a trailer down the hill from his boss’ dairy barn and works 6 days a week, for up to 70 hours each week.
When he needs to leave the farm, he pays for a ride from someone with a license. And he only leaves to do what he needs to, for grocery shopping or sending money to Mexico, then comes right back to the farm.
“When you go out are you worried about what might happen?”
Salvador first crossed the border in 2005, went back to Mexico after two years and made the trip again in 2008. He says the walk across the border has gotten much harder. It took him eight days; two of those days were spent without food or water. He had to pay 5,000 pesos to gangs along the way and was turned back once when Border Patrol sent a dog after him.
“Once a person gets here, it might be a month, two months, three months, but they’ll find a job. The most dangerous part is getting here,” says Salvador.
Under the proposed Senate immigration bill, Salvador could be eligible for what's known as a blue card, so long as he can prove he's spent enough time doing farm work since the end of 2011.
Republican opposition to the bill has centered on whether new border security provisions are strict enough. The last time Congress offered legal status to undocumented immigrants was in 1986, and the number of immigrants here illegally has more doubled since then.
The bill includes a new guest worker visa, the W-2, that its supporters say would help end the flow of job seekers crossing the border illegally.
“I can’t explain well what the life of an American is, I haven’t lived it,” says Marta, another undocumented worker in the dairy industry who didn’t want to use her real name.
She lives with her husband and four kids on a dairy farm north of Geneva and arrived in the U.S. 13 years ago.
“But it’s different because my kids want to go visit places, they want to get out, but the police could stop me and what would happen to my kids?”
Two of her children were born in the U.S. and are citizens. Marta’s been living on this farm for 10 years and works long hours: 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.
“Do you get any sort of overtime?”
“What is that? No.”
Marta tells the story of her younger sister’s death at the age of 18 in Mexico. She tried to send money but used the wrong name at Western Union and couldn’t produce the right ID to fix the problem. Marta says she had to choose between seeing her sister and risking the trip back across the border or staying in the U.S. with her kids.
“And those are the things that make you want to have your papers. It’s not for me that I want my papers, I don’t need my papers, so far they haven’t found me. I’m here,” she says.
Even though she makes $7.50 an hour and her husband only makes a little bit more, they’re able to support four kids here and family members in Mexico. Marta says they save all the money they can because they could be sent home tomorrow. But all that would change if they were given legal status.
“The first thing I’d do is bring my kids to Disneyland, that’s what I want to do is bring my kids to Disneyland.”