Source: Jim Memmott and Lara Becker Liu (04-03-06)
Thousands come to work; some stay for good
Josefino Paz’s journey began in the early 1980s when he was a teenager and came into this country illegally from Mexico.
It was not an easy journey, but he persevered, worked hard and made a life here.
Now, as the national debate over immigration rages, Paz, who lives in Brockport and teaches in the Greece school district, hopes that other people are given the same chance he was.
“I think it would be beneficial for the United States to allow a program that legally allows people to work,” Paz said.
There are officials - including President Bush - who agree with this position.
But many are opposed, saying that illegal immigrants place a burden on everything from schools to the health system.
This debate over immigration has significant consequences in the Rochester region. Thousands of workers come here annually, some illegally, and many are employed in agriculture, doing hard work for relatively low wages that growers say otherwise wouldn’t get done.
“The people who live in my neighborhood aren’t going to go out and pick apples and pick cabbage,” said James Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, a trade organization based in Fishers, Ontario County.
“If they take those workers away, who’s going to do the work? Who’s going to supply Wegmans with their produce?”
Maureen Torrey, owner of Torrey Farms in Elba, Genesee County, agrees.
“Farm work has always been a position where an immigrant can come and get a start,” she said. “It was a starting point.”
For sure, work in the fields was a place to start for Paz and other members of his family, including his sister Librada Paz, who lives in Brockport, and two brothers.
“We all came for a better opportunity,” said Librada, 33.
A success story
Josefino Paz, 38, first crossed into this country with the help of a smuggler, someone who charges people to be taken across the border.
However, Paz had to go back. The next time, about three months later, he came across on his own.
For years, Paz followed the harvest.
“It’s demanding work. And you have to move and move. You earn some money here, and you spend it on the way to there. Sometimes we didn’t have a house or a place to rent, and we would have to live in cars.”
Paz took welfare once, just once, maybe $10 or $15 in food stamps. But that was it. All the other times, he made what he spent.
Eventually, he got legal status during a period of amnesty in the 1980s.
Eventually, he became a citizen.
Eventually, he caught up with the schooling that had been interrupted when he left Mexico at age 15.
He got his high school equivalency diploma and went to Monroe Community College, then the State University College at Brockport. Now he’s studying for a master’s degree at Nazareth College.
Paz has been teaching for almost three years, two in the Rochester School District, one now in Greece.
Married, he has two young children. On Saturday, he went ice skating with them. He’s not a good skater, but he wants them to understand and enjoy the opportunities here.
“But I try to get my kids to learn whatever there is to learn about my own culture,” he added.
The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., has put the number of illegal immigrants in this country at more than 11 million.
The majority of these people - 56 percent - come from Mexico, the center reports. An additional 22 percent come from other countries in Latin America.
Stuart Mitchell, president and chief executive of Rural Opportunities, a social services provider in Rochester, said it’s difficult to know how many undocumented immigrants there are in this area.
“It’s an elusive number. There’s probably 10,000 to 15,000 farmworkers in the Rochester area, not counting family members. About half are undocumented. And that doesn’t count workers in the construction or hotel industries.”
Torrey, whose company has operations in Genesee, Orleans, Niagara and Yates counties, said farmers here do everything they can to determine that the workers are documented.
They have the workers fill out I-9 forms, which determine eligibility to work in the United States. They issue W-2 forms, which show that workers’ wages are reported to the IRS.
In addition, Torrey said, she hires workers referred to her by the state Department of Labor.
At peak season, Torrey Farms employs 400 people.
“Most of them are from Mexico,” she said. “They’re milking the cows and tending the fruits and vegetables. If they all took a holiday, we would get very hungry.”
Torrey would like Congress to adopt a “guest worker” provision that would allow those who are in this country illegally to stay, at least for a few years.
The White House supports that provision. The Senate Judiciary Committee has backed a provision that would go one step further by making it possible for the guest workers to become citizens.
A House bill passed in December doesn’t have a guest worker provision, and some members of the House are strongly opposed to that idea, calling it amnesty.
The House measure also would criminalize the offering of assistance to illegal immigrants.
That and a tough stance on securing the U.S.-Mexican border have prompted angry reactions by Hispanics and others who have taken to the streets of U.S. cities in protest.
In December, Rep. Randy Kuhl, R-Hammondsport, Steuben County, used his newsletter to poll residents in his district on immigration issues.
Seventy-one percent of those who responded said they were against a guest worker provision in an immigration bill.
“The message (of the poll) to agriculture is they need to do a better job of educating the public about the guest worker program,” said Bob Van Wicklin, Kuhl’s spokesman.
Van Wicklin said Kuhl would like to see a final immigration bill that does something to guarantee farmers the workers they need.
“We need to stem the tide (of illegal immigration),” Van Wicklin said. “But Congressman Kuhl still supports some sort of element that takes the farmers into consideration.”
Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-Clarence, Erie County, sounds a similar note.
“In a post-9/11 world, we have an obligation to secure our borders and crack down on illegal immigration,” he said. But “we must be responsible to our employers as well and ensure that those individuals who enter this country legally are able to participate in our economy.”
As the debate over new immigration laws goes on, so does the enforcement of current laws.
“I see in this ministry many people have been deported and separated from their families,” said Sandra Rojas, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester’s coordinator for the Hispanic Migrant Ministry and a native of Mexico.
“(Workers) are worried right now. They’re scared.”
Bernardo Soto, 45, of Brockport twice has illegally entered the United States from Mexico. Still, he has made a life here with a wife and a 12-year-old son at home. The Sotos also have two older children.
Recently, federal officers appeared at their house at 7:30 a.m. and placed Soto under arrest. He was released, awaiting a deportation hearing in September.
“I work for myself,” Soto said. “I try to make a living and support my family. Let me go, and I won’t bother anybody
“I go over there (Mexico), I don’t know if I’m going to make it
Photo By: Heather Charles