Pioneer Valley farmers fear for their foreign-born workers

The Recorder, April 3, 2018, by Richie Davis

When immigration policy was raised as an issue at a meeting last year in Hadley, 75 farmers, lawmakers and other community members turned out to call for addressing the needs of local farms and protection for workers whom one farmer called “the bedrock of my farm and operation.”

But as farmers prepare to discuss the same issue — along with broader concerns about farm-worker justice in anticipation of spring planting — there is greater fear on the part of workers and farm owners alike and a sense that the longstanding crisis has deteriorated.

Some farmers even refuse to be quoted on the issue, following a 2017 harvest season in which a van carrying nine farm workers was targeted and stopped last November by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in five unmarked vehicles. The workers, who were returning home, were detained for enforcement by the federal authorities.

Literature on Saturday’s (April 7) session on “Immigration and the Food System,” as part of a day-long forum at Gateway City Arts Holyoke by the PV Grows food system collaborative, describes this as “a time of heightened stress and fear for foreign-born residents of the Pioneer Valley and beyond.”

The collaborative’s written description continues, “Foreign-born residents play a substantial role in the food system of our region and now, more than ever, it is essential to support the food system workers of the Pioneer Valley.” The session promises to “explore approaches to taking action moving forward.”

But some farmers have said they are turning increasingly to a federal H-2A visa program for seasonal workers, even though it is bureaucratically cumbersome and expensive — with farmers required to provide round-trip transportation and housing for the workers, who are required to return to their home countries.

While Gideon Porth, owner of Deerfield’s Atlas Farm, says he’s been impacted by the Trump administration’s more severe immigration law enforcement — with four Atlas farm workers deported to Mexico last year — Atlas has increased its H-2A participation from 11 to 18 or 19, to be more than two-thirds of its seasonal workforce. The farm also hires about 20 year-round workers, he said.

“I definitely hear from a lot of farmers who are daunted by what’s going on,” Porth said. “But it hasn’t hurt us much. Gradually, we’ve moved more to H-2A, and it’s pretty reliable, with people who come back every year. The stability of H-2A from year to year is its hallmark, Porth says, although dealing with changing Department of Labor rules is resulting in workers arriving two to three weeks later than they’re needed this year, he added.

Wally Czajkowski of Plainville Farm in Hadley said he plans to increase the number of H-2A workers from six to eight, beginning with the May asparagus harvest. But, he explained, “It’s very cumbersome and it’s not our first choice, but we don’t have a lot of options.”

But Czajkowski was unsure how hard it will be to find as many as 40 seasonal workers, many of them Mexicans and Guatemalans, to augment his year-round crew because of fear — especially after last fall’s raid.

“Even people who have green cards are uncomfortable,” he said. “ICE just goes in and raids places. Even if you’re here legally, you could be detained for a while and separated from your family, and you’d have to retain a lawyer. Our people have green cards and such, but it’s just the uncertainty. I’m hoping we can get (workers’) friends and families to supplement crews during the season. Knowing people like we do, they’re not murderers or rapists. They pay a lot in income tax and Social Security. They’re not abusing the welfare system at all. If you work with them, you know what the truth is.”

“If ICE shows up in my field in the middle of the season and carries my crew away, that will destroy my life’s work and will rob me of my life’s savings in the business,” one Franklin County farmer, who declined to have his name used out of fear, said. “If I lose my crew in the middle of summer with the fields full of product and I can’t pick and sell it, I will lose the income from that year and all the money I’ve poured into the field, and it will pretty much wipe me out. I don’t how many people I have who are legal or illegal. I have their documentation. But these people are running scared.”

Margaret Christie, special projects director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said, “I think people who rely on these workers do what they need to do to follow the rules in terms of getting documentation, but they understand the workers working with them often live within communities where not everybody has documentation, so there are threats to their spouses, their partners, cousins, uncles, neighbors. That means that everybody feels this level of worry and concern, so it makes them wonder if they’re going to have the labor force in place you need to do the harvesting.”

It’s not a case of other people stepping in from the local economy to do this work, the farmers say

“These are hard workers with real skills,” says Christie, insisting that any suggestion that agricultural workers aren’t skilled workers is a false one. “The farmers say these are great workers because they have a lot of experience and skills, and they can do their work really fast and efficiently and make helpful suggestions.”

She added, “It’s important for us to have these conversations. We need to listen to the workers, and hear what kinds of steps for them would be helpful, and how do we support both farmers and farm workers?”

CISA, for example, is planning to offer English classes to help workers build communication skills and improve team-building on farms.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who is a member of the congressional Agriculture Committee and attended last year’s forum, said of H-2A, “We have to make sure that program is user friendly and efficient. In the agricultural sector, you need your workers when you need them because you have a timetable that’s set in stone. We need to make sure our farmers get the help they need when they need it.”

Although what he termed “glitches” in coordination between the Department of Labor and immigration and agricultural officials predate the current administration, McGovern said, the Trump administration’s “attitude toward immigration in general is quite hostile. A lot of seasonal workers are nervous about everything.”

What’s more, McGovern said, “Because of the stuff that comes out of the White House makes the whole immigration toxic, people are trying to go through the process (of improving H-2A visa) as quietly as possible. Some are concerned about raising their voices because they don’t want to call attention to the issue and have the administration react in a way that would be counterproductive.”

“Everybody right now is walking on eggshells, to see if anything’s going to dramatically change this year, and hoping they’re going to get the workers they need,” McGovern said. “My interest and focus is to work with farmers that have workers they need to do the work that’s necessary on their farms, because the delays have been very problematic.”

Neftali Duran, the former owner of El Jardin Bakery in Deerfield who works on food justice issues and will lead Saturday’s talk on the effects of immigration policy on area farms, said, “We’re setting the table for people to come together, who are working on the front lines of the immigration issue, to share with the rest of us about what our communities are facing in the Pioneer Valley in general, and in the farming community. … It’s for people from a labor perspective, and activists, and other community members these efforts, so we can have a discussion of this immigration crackdown and the overreach of power that’s been terrorizing our communities — how that’s impacting not only the undocumented community, but everyone who works with farmers, business owners, who are not able to retain farm workers because people are scared to go out.”

The situation is worse than it was a year ago, Duran added, with many workers targeted indiscriminately in actions largely “invisible” to the public.

“It affects not only farm workers who are undocumented, but all of us. Lots of people have been targeted, including activists fighting for basic human rights and improvement in farm work. People who had already been in shadows are scared to go to work. In the current political situation, they will target even people who have green cards and are permanent residents,” said Duran.

“But at the same time, there are a lot of allies who are stepping up in supporting the farm worker community through gestures of humanity. Those of us who have a voice have to use it. We have to take care of the most vulnerable in our communities.”