Forum explores effects of immigration policy on workers, food availability

Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 8, 2018, by Fran Ryan

Advocates and organizers for migrant workers spoke to a sold out audience of 120 people in Holyoke on Saturday as part of a day long forum organized by PV Grows, a collaborative network that works towards enhancing the vitality and sustainability of the Pioneer Valley food system.

The event focused on patterns of racial discrimination and inequities in land access, state and federal programs and legislation on food and farming, and the effect of immigration on the food system.

“We have to recognize that at some point in the food chain, a migrant worker is responsible for the food on your plate,” speaker Neftali Duran said.

Duran is the founder of the I-Collective, an indigenous collective that “promotes a healthy food system that values people traditional knowledge and the planet over profit.”

A migrant worker for 18 years, Duran is a chef and small business owner who is organizing to build a network of indigenous food leaders.

“I am lucky enough to have a voice, so it’s my responsibility to lift up people who don’t,” Duran said.

According to Duran, Massachusetts only grows about 20 percent of the food we consume.

“We are eating food every day that is coming from far away, from labor provided by migrant workers,” he said.

That food system he says is now under threat as the current administration’s immigration policy is aggressively targeting migrant workers for investigation and deportation, despite any history of criminal behavior.

The fear of being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is keeping migrant workers from taking jobs on farms.

“You can already see the results. Locally we see shortages of strawberries, blueberries and apples,” he said. “In some states food is rotting in the fields and that has an impact on everyone.”

Duran said that there are roughly 250 migrant farmers that reside in the valley who are also being effected by the “xenophobia and racism unleashed by this administration.”

Claudia Quintero, a speaker at the event is an immigration attorney who works with the Migrant Farm Workers Unit at the Central West Justice Center.

She advocates for workers across the state on issues of immigration, housing, health services, and family services, and serves on the coordinating committee of the ACLU of Western Massachusetts’ Immigrant Protection Project as well as the board of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.

Quintero said that as a heightened fear spreads throughout the communities of migrant farm workers and food service workers in the Commonwealth, it is becoming harder for her to connect with them as they are fearful about who they can trust.

This she said has a direct impact on both the health and wellbeing of workers, their families and communities and the cost and availability of food as no one else is stepping in and taking those jobs.

“In Massachusetts the minimum wage is $11, but for agricultural workers the allowable minimum is $8.25,” she said. “Agricultural operations are also exempt form providing overtime so someone can work 8, 16, or 17 hours and still get $8.25 an hour.”

To call attention to the issues effecting migrant workers, Quintero and Duran said that it is important for people to see and hear from the workers themselves.

“It’s one thing to hear about this on NPR, it is very different to be with a real person and to hear their story,” she said.

Sharing his personal story on Saturday was keynote speaker Enrique Balcazar, 25, and a member of the Vermont based group Migrant Justice.

Speaking at an afternoon session, Balcazar said he initially came to the US from Mexico to further his education and ended up working on a dairy farm in Vermont.

He recounted the pain he experienced leaving his family, the isolation of being in a foreign country and not speaking the language, and the fear of being picked up at any moment.

“Fear is something I went to bed with at night and woke up with in the morning,” he said.

He said this changed however, when he came to understand that he had certain rights and that labor laws protected farm workers despite their immigration status.

He also began to learn about how racism has fueled a history of aggressive land acquisition, and the creation of borders by those who were themselves immigrants to North America.

“I came to understand that it was systemic injustice that was creating the situation in the first place,” he said. “That is when I lost the fear, and I put myself more at risk to help change things.”

After peacefully living and working in Vermont for seven years, Balcazar and a companion were arrested in March 2017.

“I am not a criminal,” he said explaining how he was taken from his car, put in handcuffs, and ankle cuffs and taken away without any explanation from the ICE agents.

He was detained for 11 days and now faces deportation, though he has an attorney to help fight the proceedings.

“In Vermont we have seen retaliation because we have been organizing,” he said.

Duran summed up what he thought of the current immigration laws and said Massachusetts should follow the lead of other cities and states who are refusing to pursue migrant workers without probable cause of criminal activity.

“At a national level we need comprehensive immigration reform that is just and upholds the dignity of people,” he said. “There will always be abuse in a food system that is for profit and not for people, and there can be no justice without food justice,” Duran said.