2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Immigration reform proposals currently before Congress should recognize the importance of farmworkers to agriculture and make it easier for them to become properly documented.
That was a main point of discussion during a “Food Chain Workers” panel at the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in Saratoga Springs. More than 400 people from 12 states were on hand for the Feb. 10-12 event.
It’s believed that more than half of all New York state farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, primarily from Mexico.
The number of upstate New York border patrol agents has increased tenfold since Sept. 11, 2001, from 39 to 400. Sometimes, when actual border duties are slow, agents turn their attention to immigrant farmworkers, said Mary Jo Dudley, director of Cornell University’s Farmworker Program.
“These people live under the constant stress that they might get raided,” she said.
Both she and Elizabeth Henderson, an Agricultural Justice Project board member, say that farm and food industry workers should be granted more freedom to come and go across the U.S.-Mexico border to perform vitally important jobs that many Americans won’t do because they’re too difficult or don’t pay enough.
“Money flows across the border,” Henderson said. “People should be allowed to also, if there’s a job available that they’re willing to do. We shouldn’t just use them and send them home when we don’t need them anymore.”
Dudley said, “There’s a misperception that farm work isn’t skilled labor. In fact, it involves all kinds of skills.”
However, the long hours that immigrant laborers work quite often prevents them from learning English language skills, which keeps them from assimilating into society.
This social and geographic isolation can lead to a variety of other problems, including mental health issues, Dudley said.
Making it easier for farmworkers to be properly documented would eliminate some problems, she said.
Jose Romero, 24, told how he borrowed $2,000 and came across the border with hopes of earning enough money to support his mother and three younger sisters back home in Mexico.
“There are many reasons that Mexico is a hard country to live in, mostly economic,” he said through an interpreter. “That is the main reason I moved to the U.S.”
However, like generations of immigrants before him, he wasn’t given the proverbial “red-carpet” treatment. His quest brought him to New York City, where he found low-paying restaurant and food processing plant jobs, with long hours from employers who took advantage of his undocumented status by refusing to pay overtime or grant paid sick time, as required by law.
“It opened my eyes to the reality that the United States can also be a cruel place for immigrants,” he said.
Romero is among the millions of immigrant workers in America’s food chain — farms, food-processing plants and restaurants — for whom basic rights are an everyday struggle.
Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York is currently conducting a farmworker survey. “We want to find out who’s working on farms and who’s here legally,” said Henderson, a past NOFA board member. She also owns an organic farm in Newark, Wayne County, near Lake Ontario.
Study results are expected to be announced this summer.
While fighting for immigrants’ rights, Henderson said raising farm salaries would make such jobs more attractive to U.S. citizens and decrease America’s reliance on Mexican labor. Compared to most industrialized nations, U.S. consumers pay relatively little for their food, she said.
“We have to change this whole cheap food policy,” Henderson said. “In the 1940s, there were 6 million farms in America. Now there are 2.2 million. It’s because people couldn’t make ends meet, not because they didn’t like farming. We have to make changes in the food system so that people who do that work are properly remunerated.
“There’s plenty of money,” she said. “It’s just not distributed properly.”