According to surveys, about half of all farmworkers in the country lack legitimate documents and live in what's often described as a "shadow world," without legal rights. The farmers who employ those workers, meanwhile, are deeply ambivalent about this situation.However, many farm workers say they'd keep working in the fields. It tells you a lot about what farmers think of the work migrant workers do that they fear those workers leaving if the workers had other options than working on the farms, and they don't believe they could replace them with new workers if the migrants left.
"They present bona fide documents that show that they're a legal worker. Do I believe that they're 100 percent correct? No," says Stephen Patricio, president of Westside Produce, a big melon packer in California's Central Valley.
Patricio is frustrated with federal immigration policies that make life difficult for his workers. Those feelings are partly rooted in self-interest because he needs them. But they're mixed with sympathy.
"They're just trying to feed their families," he says. "And to punish people for seeking a better life, which we've held up as our mantra throughout the world, is wrong!"
So one part of Patricio was happy when, last fall, President Obama promised more protection for millions of immigrants, such as those who have children who are U.S. citizens. This executive action probably covers hundreds of thousands of farmworkers — but it is now in limbo, because a federal judge in Texas has blocked it, at least for now.
Patricio, however, also has another reaction, one that illustrates deeper conflicts over U.S. immigration policy.
He says that giving more legal rights to those workers is probably bad for his business. He believes that some of these workers are in the Central Valley, working in agriculture, because it's a good place to hide from the authorities.
If those workers gain legal status, "that pressure is off. Now they can go to the cities and look for construction jobs, or manufacturing jobs," he says.
In the late 1980s, millions of immigrants gained legal status. Patricio believes that as a result, many left agriculture.
But back then, employers had an alternative. The border was more porous than it is now, and employers were able turn to a fresh wave of immigrants. That flow has now slowed to a trickle, and Patricio says this has created a real shortage of farmworkers.
Traveling around the Central Valley, I heard same argument from several different employers. Among the most vocal was Manuel Cunha Jr., who is president of the Nisei Farmers League, based in Fresno.
Many workers who get legal protections "are going to go find full-time jobs, because now they're safe," Cunha said. "And I have nothing to replace them with. Nothing!"
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Farmers Sympathize with Undocumented Workers but Fear They'll Leave With Amnesty