The Effects of Migrant Workers in Upstate New York
By Julissa Trevino
Sarah Lindland, an Ithaca College senior who teaches English to migrant workers, told me she had a lot to say about immigration laws. She had been teaching English through IC’s Intercambios program to her now-deported friend, Byron, a 25-year-old man from Guatemala, for the past three years. Byron was a migrant worker at a dairy farm in King Ferry, operating milking machines and doing various other tasks. There, he lived with four other workers in a house on the main road in town.
On Oct. 30, Byron was dropped off in Guatemala without a trial after being in the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, N.Y., for about a month.
Since 2003, the government has been cracking down on illegal immigration, particularly with the creation of the first Fugitive and Operations Program within the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The program dramatically expanded the localization and deportation of illegal immigrants. In New York state, outside New York City and Long Island, the program deported over 4,111 illegal immigrants in 2008, an increase of 1,430 from 2003.
There are over three million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, many of whom travel throughout the country, working to help a multi-million dollar agricultural industry. Eighty percent of farm workers are men, 84 percent speak Spanish and only 12 percent speak English. The average age for a farm worker is 31, and their median level of education is the sixth grade, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS).
Migrant farm labor supports a $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry in the United States, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health. The presence of farm workers has resulted in an increase in the overall economic output of the regions in which they work.
Lindland’s friend and Intercambio was deported after he was arrested in Syracuse. He was pulled over by a police officer, taken into a detainee center in Buffalo and subsequently transported to a jail in Texas for being an illegal immigrant. The driver of the vehicle was a Puerto Rican priest, who was legal, and there was at least one other illegal Guatemalan worker in the car.
“[Byron] just came to this country to work and provide for his family, and he was going to church, and he got pulled over, and now he’s going to be in jail,” says Lindland as we drive to see Byron’s friends and housemates. She says there are farms with migrant workers starting 20 minutes outside of Ithaca and continuing for about three hours out, pointing out migrant worker houses.
Pete Meyers, coordinator for the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, which used to have an individual branch for immigrant workers’ issues, says there is a vast difference even among immigrants in the Ithaca area: the class difference that exists between those coming here for graduate school at Cornell, for example, and those coming here to work at restaurants or farms, most of whom are undocumented.
A recent NAWS study shows that 52 percent of farm workers are not citizens or legal residents of the United States. But regardless of their residency status, many farm workers report experiencing prejudice and hostility in the communities in which they live. According to a January 2009 study conducted by the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University, 62 percent of randomly selected New York state residents said they noticed undocumented farm workers as generally having a positive impact on the local community. But the study also showed that a large number of people believed the undocumented workers were taking jobs from legal residents, although farm owners expressed difficulty in finding local residents to fill the positions because farm work is sometimes seasonal and physically demanding.
Forty percent of respondents stated that undocumented farm workers fill jobs that legal residents do not want, and 37 percent actually praised undocumented farm workers for providing farmers with the labor they need to keep food prices low. In stark contrast to this perception, of those who considered them as having a negative impact, 46 percent were worried that undocumented farm workers were taking jobs from legal citizens and residents or driving down wages. An additional 33 percent expressed concern that undocumented farm workers are a drain on taxes and services.
This data shows a contradiction over the impact and role of farm workers. They express almost evenly split opposing perceptions—that undocumented workers are truly filling a need for farm labor or that they are stealing jobs and driving down wages. Some say that they are hurting the economy by collecting welfare and not paying taxes, others that they are helping it by supporting farmers and increasing the availability of affordable food.
A recent NAWS study found that nearly 75 percent of U.S. farm workers earn less than $10,000 a year, whereas the average income for those over the age of 25 in 2005 was $32,140, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In other industries, illegal immigrants are sometimes paid drastically lower wages than the average American.
Meyers says the branch began working with immigrants when, within the first couple of months the organization was officially founded, someone came to the center with an immigrant worker issue. Several undocumented workers from Collegetown Pizzeria asked for help because of their conditions and treatment: they were sleeping in the basement of the restaurant, getting paid $4 an hour and not receiving overtime pay. Meyers says the center was able to help them, recognizing the need for this kind of work. “We’ve actually had what we call a lot of ‘wage theft’ situations,” he says, referencing the pizzeria situation, “where their wages were being stolen.”
The Workers’ Center sometimes works with individuals on a more personal basis, says Meyers. “For us to be successful with anybody, we have to build trust,” he says. “And I would say in some ways, with immigrants, it can actually be harder in some ways because we often don’t speak the same language. But I can still work it out.”
The center also has a list of contacts who can act as translators in situations where the language barrier is significant.
The current New York state law does allow certain freedoms and rights to illegal immigrants. Anyone who is pulled over in a car, for example, doesn’t have to answer any questions beyond giving the officer their name. Officers are still allowed to ask about immigration status and nationality, and because most illegal immigrants don’t know they have any rights in the United States, like Byron, they end up saying more than they have to and put themselves at risk of deportation. Meyers says this is a problem, and the center has been addressing this issue by providing pamphlets and other information about these rights.
While many people in Ithaca perceive the center’s efforts to inform illegal immigrants with basic workers’ rights sensible and even necessary, others see it as breaking the nation’s laws. New York state has much stricter laws against illegal immigrants than other states like Texas and Tennessee, which have high populations of undocumented workers. In 2007, state legislators in all 50 states introduced at least 1,169 bills and resolutions related to immigration, immigrants and refugees. Of those, 18 states enacted at least 57 bills—most of them negatively affecting illegal immigrants by limiting, tightening or restricting their freedoms and rights.
In November 2007, an editorial in The Cornell Daily Sun criticized then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and the Ithaca Common Council’s resolution to refrain from being excessively aggressive toward immigration law.
“America must remain vigilant against the tide of illegal immigrants,” the Daily Sun writer said. Since 2007, the City of Ithaca has not passed any other resolutions concerning illegal immigrants or undocumented workers.
“[Byron] did nothing wrong. If coming to another country to work and trying to give your family a better life is wrong, [if] helping the U.S. economy is wrong, then my grandparents were wrong,” says Lindland. “If family is the only thing you have, you’re willing to do anything for them. And I don’t care how many people criticize me for saying that.”
Julissa Treviño is a senior writing major who swears she is a legal citizen. Really. E-mail her at [email protected].