Biting the Hands That Feed: New York’s Immigrant Farmworkers Face Appalling Treatment

Leanne Tory-Murphy Dec 17, 2015

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Maria is a farmworker who lives in a small town west of Syracuse. In the 12 years since arriving in New York, she has married, started a family and become accustomed to the four seasons of her adopted home and its long bleak winters. One day last January her husband, who is undocumented, went to do his laundry and never came home. 

While waiting in his car outside the laundromat and downloading some games onto a tablet he had purchased for his 4-year-old son, Maria’s husband was approached by local police. They quickly called in the Border Patrol, which detained him on the spot. After being held in various immigrant detention centers for 10 months, he was deported to Mexico, returning to his home state of Chiapas. Maria finds herself struggling to work and raise their son as a single mom. Sometimes he gets angry and refuses to talk with his father on the phone. 

“I always have to remind him,” she says, “it’s not dad’s fault.”

The clear lakes and verdant fields of far upstate New York are not what immediately come to mind when people in the United States think of the “border.” Nonetheless, more than 60,000 immigrant workers like Maria who hail from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean have migrated to the region to work in its booming agricultural sector. They toil for long hours and low pay in local orchards, produce packing facilities, industrial-scale dairy farms and other low-wage industries. Yet, these immigrants’ overriding concern is with the Border Patrol and its local law enforcement partners. Their smothering presence has left them fearful and uncertain about whether they will vanish from one day to the next into the federal government’s vast machinery of immigrant detention and deportation. A farmworker who was detained after working in the United States for nine years recounts a common attitude among immigrants in the region: “One has to accept that this reality is reality, the reality of one who comes to live here.” 

New York, of course, is a border state with Canada, and anyone who has traveled to Montreal has passed through the orderly checkpoints on the Thruway. However, Border Patrol’s jurisdiction goes much further, 100 miles into the interior from any U.S. land or coastal border. That’s how they got Maria’s husband. The town they live in is just south of the shores of Lake Ontario, where the international border cuts neatly through the lake. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the area of Border Patrol’s jurisdiction includes almost two-thirds of the U.S. population within it — about 200 million people. 

The 9/11 Effect

The Border Patrol’s stated mission is to safeguard America’s borders. It has been redefined in recent years to include “preventing terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States,” according to the agency’s website. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the number of Border Patrol agents along the northern border has increased from 340 agents in 2001 to 2,094 agents in 2014. Two hundred and eighty-eight of these agents were primarily stationed in New York in 2014, up from 37 in 2001. 

John Ghertner, a retired physician and activist who lives in Sodus, the heart of the state’s apple industry, describes the huge increase of Border Patrol activity after 9/11. “Back then it was Gestapo tactics. Border Patrol was invading the village of Sodus every Sunday morning, picking people up on their way to church. They were actually picking up busloads of people at the time.” 

In the post-9/11 climate of fear and increased funding for immigration enforcement, once-sleepy border towns became sites of mass detentions. Ghertner believes that immigration enforcement focused its efforts in towns like Sodus because of the sheer quantity of farmworkers. By some estimates, 8,000 of them worked the county’s apple crop alone. “It was like going fishing,” says Ghertner. There was such a large increase in Border Patrol agents and “they had to have a place to do their job.” 

Ghertner and others decided to organize to get Border Patrol out of their community. Called Church Watch, a group of about 20 community members, including the mayor and local Congressman Dan Maffei, would stand across the street from the Catholic church every Sunday morning to bear witness to what was happening. Their efforts didn’t stop there. A motivated group of community volunteers started following Border Patrol agents everywhere they went, filming and photographing them. The Border Patrol was averse to bad publicity, Ghertner recalls, and the documentation of their activities along with national and international media exposure forced them to assume a much lower profile. 

Although the earlier era of mass raids has ended, Border Patrol has found other, less conspicuous ways to target undocumented immigrants. In addition to manning the points of exit and entry to Canada, Border Patrol agents in New York also set up interior checkpoints, are called in to “interpret” for local police and board Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses that pass through the region, even on purely domestic routes. 

In November 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union, along with the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University and Families for Freedom, an immigrant rights organization, produced a report called “Justice Derailed” that examined Border Patrol’s transportation raids in NY. Border Patrol was forced to produce the documents the report is based on only after advocates filed a lawsuit. The documents revealed that from 2006–2009 almost 2,800 people were arrested in transportation raids at the Rochester Station alone. Seventy-six percent of the people arrested had been in the country for over one year and 73 percent were of Latin American origin, which indicates that Border Patrol is not targeting recent Canadian border crossers but rather Latin American immigrants who happen to live and work in the region. As a result of Border Patrol’s aggressive policing, many U.S. citizens and others who are legally present in the United States have also been affected. 

Cecilia’s Story

Cecilia smokes a cigarette as she recounts being stopped for the fourth time during the week after the November 13 Paris attacks. Again they asked her where she was from, if she was a U.S. citizen and where she was going. Her eyes are both vigilant and tired. This is getting old.

She is a world away from her rural home in Puerto Rico (whose inhabitants were made U.S. citizens by an act of Congress in 1917), where inhabitants grow yucca and yams, raise horses and cows and “there are fruits and vegetables everywhere.” Her husband Juan moved from the island to St. Lawrence County four years ago after seeing a job posting in a Puerto Rican paper and Cecilia followed a year later. It was not quite what she expected. Before she was injured on the job a few months ago, she was working 12-hour shifts from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., milking cows and cleaning out their stalls for minimum wage and sometimes in freezing and unsafe conditions. 

Cecilia broke her leg when she slipped on a placenta in an improperly cleaned stall where a cow had just given birth. Outside of work, she felt policed both by Border Patrol and the local community, which regards people such as her with suspicion.

A small dairy farm in the Finger Lakes region  where a worker was killed due to unsafe working conditions.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cannot inspect farms with fewer than 11 employees.

A small dairy farm in the Finger Lakes region  where a worker was killed due to unsafe working conditions.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cannot inspect farms with fewer than 11 employees. Photo: Leanne Tory-Murphy

Feeding the Greek Yogurt Boom

St. Lawrence County, which lies in the northernmost corner of the state, is one of the top dairy-producing counties in the United States. New York, meanwhile, is currently the third largest milk-producing state. According to Cornell University, the dairy industry accounts for $14.8 billion in economic output and is the largest contributor of revenue to the state’s agricultural economy. New York is the top producer of cottage cheese, cream cheese and yogurt (including Greek yogurt) in the country. Between 2008 and 2013 milk production increased sevenfold to support the growth of the Greek yogurt industry. By some estimates, in 2013 the Greek yogurt produced in New York accounted for 70 percent of all Greek yogurt sales in the United States, led by companies like Chobani and Fage. 

As the industry grows, some counties, like St. Lawrence, have undergone consolidation in the dairy sector, with some operations growing ever larger and smaller family-run dairy farms going out of business. The industry as a whole is marked by pervasive health and safety hazards, extreme working hours and low pay.

When Juan first started, the workers were a mix of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Amish. He says they have phased out the Mexican workers over the last few years because of the immigration raids. 

Juan recalls a raid on worker housing late one night. “They came into the employee’s house at 11 o’clock at night … they saw an open door and came into the house, saying ‘This is Border Patrol, everybody to the living room!’” 

Border Patrol asked the workers to go one by one to their rooms to retrieve their IDs. The occupants had not given Border Patrol permission to come into the house. They only realized the agents were there when they started banging on the bedroom doors. 

“They didn’t knock, they didn’t call the boss, they didn’t do anything,” Juan said. Behind the house where the Puerto Ricans lived, there was a smaller house that could not be seen from the road. The Mexican workers lived there. When one of the Puerto Ricans went to his room to get his ID he quickly called the other house from his cell phone and told its occupants to flee. The Border Patrol did not find them that night. 

Although he cannot be deported because he is a U.S. citizen, Juan says that he feels persecuted. Juan estimates that he has been stopped 11 times in the past four years, often while he is walking to or from work, about a mile down the road. His pre-adolescent daughter now suffers from panic attacks when encountering law enforcement. When asked why he thinks he is being stopped so often, he simply replies, “For being Latino.” 

“When I go out with my step-daughter … she gets nervous,” Cecilia adds. “In the moment that one might forget an ID or leave it at home they treat you like if you don’t have anything to show them, an ID with your photo, that they’ll just send you to jail, and well, it’s something that scares you.” 

Cecilia believes that Border Patrol sees all Spanish-speakers as being from Mexico.

“Even when you say, or show them an ID, and if they don’t read well that it says Puerto Rico they think you are Mexican,” she notes. “My husband had that problem, they said ‘No, you are Mexican.’ And my husband told them ‘I have an ID that says Puerto Rico, I’m Puerto Rican.’” 

In 2013, Families for Freedom and the Law Clinic at NYU released another report revealing that hundreds of lawfully present individuals had been harassed, arrested or detained as a result of Border Patrol policy. The report also revealed that the Border Patrol in New York was awarding arresting agents with cash bonuses, vacation time and gift cards through discretionary incentive programs that reward a vaguely-defined “quality of work.” In 2011 the bonus programs were valued at $200,000 in the Buffalo sector, which encompasses much of upstate New York.

Stranded on the Farm

Immigration enforcement along the northern border in New York has had devastating consequences. Many farmworkers, once they arrive to their place of employment, do not leave, sometimes for years. They suffer extreme social isolation, pay to have their groceries brought to the house (which is often on the work site) and pay people to wire money for them. When abuses take place, they may be fearful of advocating for their rights or lack access to outside resources. Many workers find themselves in the vulnerable situation of being exploited for their lack of mobility and fear of immigration enforcement. 

Immigration enforcement activities not only affect the daily lives of workers and their families, but also the regional farmers and the agricultural economy that they sustain. People don’t move from a small town in Mexico or Puerto Rico to a small town in upstate New York by accident. As in Juan’s case, they are often directly recruited. Many farmers complain about the difficulty in procuring sufficient labor for their operations. A recent policy report produced by the Cornell Farmworker Program states that, “In order for NYS to capitalize on the yogurt boom, the critical issue of reliable and sufficient labor must be addressed directly.” When anti-immigrant provisions were passed in Alabama in 2011 the state lost millions of dollars in unharvested crops. 

Fruit needs to be picked or it rots. Cows need to be milked every day and most dairies run around the clock. The shifts are often 12 hours long and sometimes longer. Farmworkers often work six days per week and sometimes seven, and generally make little more than the minimum wage. Most U.S.-born citizens are unwilling to work under such conditions. As a result, some farmers use contractors to ensure a steady labor supply, while others ask their current employees to recruit friends and family members from home. Most immigrants arrive to the United States deeply in debt to their employers, contractors or family members, which further compounds the need to work and their vulnerability. 

The vulnerability of farmworkers has been enshrined in federal law since they were excluded from New Deal-era labor legislation at the insistence of Southern congressmen who opposed giving new rights to Black agricultural workers in their home region. State law is no better in New York, where farmworkers are not entitled to a day of rest, overtime pay or collective bargaining protections. The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act would end those Jim Crow-era exclusions in New York but died again in the Republican-controlled State Senate this year. 

Pushing Back

The presence of immigration enforcement in the border regions adds a looming threat that keeps many workers fearful about speaking up about their working conditions and advocating for their rights. 

Rebecca Fuentes, an organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) in Syracuse traces her involvement in immigration enforcement issues back to 2005. At the time, many immigrants in central New York were being detained in Syracuse and in neighboring towns. Local community members started a Detention Task Force whose early work centered around the development of a bail fund for detained immigrants. But, as Fuentes says, “We just couldn’t keep up.” The sheer volume of requests from the bail fund forced the group to address the roots of the issue, the detentions themselves. 

The group began to organize demonstrations at the rail and bus hub in Syracuse where many arrests were happening, and sent letters to Amtrak, Greyhound and other transportation providers about their concerns. They also began to work with local police departments to discuss how the collaboration of police with immigration enforcement undermines public safety because immigrants who fear being detained and deported will not report crimes even when they are the victims. Fuentes says that things have gotten better since then, transportation raids have gotten less frequent and the local police are less likely to call in immigration enforcement than before. However, life for immigrants in rural areas remains difficult because of the social isolation, lack of access to transportation, racial hostility and fear. 

The Agricultural Workers Committee of the WCCNY, formed in 2013, seeks to change that dynamic. A group of dairy worker leaders from several counties, they have organized demonstrations at the State Fair and on a large dairy farm in Lewis County to bring light to the working conditions in the industry. The group has successfully encouraged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to conduct surprise inspections at New York dairies due to the high rates of death and injury. They chose the collaboration of local police with immigration enforcement as one of their focal issues after one of their members, Jose Coyote, was detained last year. In that case, park police called immigration while Coyote was enjoying some time in a state park with his family. 

Fuentes and Ghertner agree that detentions and raids could spike again at any time. Republican Congressman John Katko, who replaced Maffei, is pushing for increased enforcement in New York, stating in a recent press release that, “Tough border security will ensure the safety of Upstate New York and the sovereignty of our nation.” The Northern Border Security Review Act, which he introduced, passed the House of Representatives this October. Fuentes says that if the bill passes it will make it even harder for immigrants to live in the region, adding, “These are the people that are making your towns prosper, and we are marginalizing, isolating and criminalizing them.” 



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