Illegal immigrants now under tighter focus here

Source: Democrat and Chronicle - Lara Becker Liu (04-24-06)

Workers at Edward Sharp and Sons Farm in Byron, Genesee County, trim cabbage. Cliff Sharp says after immigration officials visited the farm about three weeks ago, he was left with only two employees to work one day.

Workers at Edward Sharp and Sons Farm in Byron, Genesee County, trim cabbage. Cliff Sharp says after immigration officials visited the farm about three weeks ago, he was left with only two employees to work one day.

Farmers, workers worry about enforcement team.

A “Fugitive Operations Team” formed late last year has removed hundreds of illegal aliens across the state - and could explain why area farmers and their immigrant employees have recently felt more scrutiny from immigration officials.

Farmers - already on tenterhooks about federal legislation regarding the future of immigrant workers - have grown more agitated about the issue because of the increased enforcement, especially as the growing season approaches.

“You don’t know if the help goes home for lunch, if you’re going to have them back in the afternoon. You don’t know if you’re going to have them back the next day,” said Maureen Torrey of Torrey Farms, which employs more than 100 people in four counties, and 400 at peak season. Torrey’s Genesee County operation was temporarily affected in February, when a half-dozen workers were apprehended.

Many immigrants are said to be nervous, too - and they may have reason to be: Of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 farm workers in the Rochester area, about half are thought to be undocumented, according to Stuart Mitchell, president and chief executive of Rural Opportunities, a social services provider in Rochester. And that figure doesn’t count workers in the construction and hotel industries, he said.

“They’re scared,” said Sandra Rojas, a Brockport-area pastoral minister. “They’re worried they can be separated from their families, and second, (that) they cannot come back to this country anymore to get a job.”

Searches, not raids

The new team, made up of seven agents in the Buffalo office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, tracks down illegal immigrants who have previously been ordered to leave the country, and also may arrest those who have not yet been caught. So far, the team has removed more than 300 illegal immigrants from its territory, which includes all of New York north of Westchester County. All are detained, and most are deported soon thereafter, according to ICE. Since its inception last year, reports of immigration “raids” have spread through the farming community - though the work being conducted by ICE officials would more properly be described as searches, according to James J. Creahan, acting director of ICE’s Office of Detention and Removal in Buffalo.

“We do not conduct raids,” he said. “They do not go to a farm in hopes that the people on the farm might be a fugitive. They have to have specific details in order to perform one of these ‘locates.’”

That was Cathy Martin’s experience when she was paid a visit recently by immigration officials. “They did stop here looking for a particular person,” said Martin, of Martin Farms Inc. in Brockport, a 3,000-acre operation that employs 40 people and double that at peak season. “They had a reason for wanting him, and they had a pay stub from my farm.”

Unsettling encounters

Other farmers, and others who work with immigrants, said their encounters with immigration officials have been unsettling. They said officials have gone to workers’ homes early in the morning, rousing people and asking to see documents. Several people also described officials rounding up workers as they loaded their children onto a school bus.

“It happened more than one morning. It happens a bit. Our drivers pull in (to pick up the children), and Immigration appears to be waiting for the buses,” said Paula Shaw Radka, director of Batavia Agri-Business Child Development Center, a migrant-worker Head Start program that transports children from Monroe and Genesee counties.

“It has a horrendous impact on children who see their parents taken away by people who have identified themselves as police. It’s very traumatic. (They say things like) ‘The police took my daddy. I don’t know where my daddy is. I’ll never see him again.’ That kind of thing.”

On at least one occasion, several community members said, officials surprised a group of as many as 16 immigrants in the parking lot of a Brockport-area grocery store. They have reportedly also appeared during traffic violation stops, presumably after being called by police, community members said. It wasn’t clear which agency was present during those incidents; spokespeople from ICE and Customs and Border Protection denied any involvement.

Getting nasty

Cliff Sharp, who runs a small cabbage farm in Byron, Genesee County, said immigration officials came to his farm three weeks ago. “They were looking for a guy, a Mexican,” Sharp recalled. Neither he nor his workers knew of the man, but he said, “most of these people don’t have the same name twice every year.”

When he next met officials, the following morning, Sharp said he “had to get nasty with them” because they wouldn’t move their cars after handcuffing and questioning several workers at the house where Sharp had gone to pick the workers up.

He was left with only two workers that day. “I had cabbage to put out, but we couldn’t put it out. We worked what we could and that was it,” he said.

Calls for reform

Creahan said that the recent activity is unrelated to the immigration reform debate that has inspired mass demonstrations.

“This is nothing new; it’s just that it’s new to our area. We were one of the last offices to receive a team,” he said.

But it has nevertheless renewed area farmers’ determination to fight for legislation with a guest worker provision that would legalize their mostly immigrant work force, on whom they rely to harvest crops and milk cows.

“Increased enforcement without a guest-worker provision would not be good for agriculture,” said John Lincoln, head of the New York Farm Bureau.

The bureau is against a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December that would speed up deportations, tighten border security and make it a felony to live here illegally. (It is a currently civil violation.) But a proposal that would have put some immigrants on the path to citizenship collapsed in the Senate a week-and-a-half ago amid feuding over amendments.

Several farmers said they try to ensure they’re hiring legal workers by having them fill out the proper W-4 and I-9 forms, and by studying workers’ documents. But they said they don’t have the tools to determine whether the papers they’re presented are fake, and they face penalties if they guess wrong and deny a job to someone who is here legitimately. And ultimately, the farmers need the workers’ help.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Sharp said. “We’re not the ones who make the laws. Whatever they present us with is what we have to put down. They’ll be back next year and they’ve got a different name, different numbers. All they want to do is earn money and go back or send money back, that’s all. Is there anyone around here who will do the work? No.”

Who would do the work?

Torrey, of Torrey Farms, echoes that claim: She said she has tried to hire domestic workers but to no avail.

“You can run an ad for, say, a tractor driver or a truck driver. I can run it in any paper and don’t get any applicants. And you’re talking about a job with benefits, a pension, a 401(k),” she said. “People don’t want to do this dirty work.”

Or they might prefer a permanent position, rather than the seasonal work more often available at farms, said Paul Baker, executive director of Agricultural Affiliates Inc., an agricultural labor organization representing New York growers. Consider, too, he said, that with the unemployment rate in the five-county Rochester region at 5.1 percent, domestic laborers have more options available to them than agricultural work.

Baker argued that farmers wouldn’t intentionally avoid hiring domestic workers because they would save on perks - such as housing - that they typically give immigrant laborers. “Why would you want to get yourself into that?” he said.

Others question how a job that pays $9 an hour on average and sometimes includes benefits wouldn’t be attractive to domestic workers - unless farmers aren’t giving them a chance to fill it.

“Americans aren’t all lazy, if you give them the opportunity,” said Dick Wildman, 67, of Rochester. He supports efforts to deport fugitive illegal immigrants, if only to “show the legal immigrants that they didn’t do what they did for naught.”

“If you’re here, and you’re illegal and you’re a fugitive, then something should be done,” he said. “With me, it’s the principle: You’re supposed to do something this way, do it this way. I think it’s going to benefit everybody, including the people here legally that spent the time and did the work to be here legally.”

Baker acknowledged that the issue is “very, very emotional.”

“We’ve tried to step back and look at it from an analytical point of view. We want security for our farms just like everybody else,” he said.

“We just want a way we can continue our business and know the people we’re hiring are legitimate. We feel it’s long overdue.”

Photo By: Jay Capers

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