By Julie Pottier-Brown
On Saturday, April 8th, I attended a meeting in Hadley, MA hosted by Wally Czajkowski at Plainville Farm. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the current administration’s handling of our country’s immigration policy.
Cars and trucks lined the drive to the packing shed. A hum filled the barn as neighbors and friends greeted each other. Attendees were asked to sign in and note on a card the amount of their business’s gross income. With nearly 75 people in attendance, glancing around, I saw many familiar faces. Participants showed up because they are concerned about the immigrant community that lives and works nearby.
The 90-minute meeting included farmers and state legislators, local business owners, a farm worker, and a local immigration lawyer willing to answer questions pro bono, and many others, all deeply concerned. It was a day to share stories, ask what can be done, sign letters and postcards, and identify actions to take.
“No business owner knowingly hires illegal immigrants.”
That’s how the discussion opened by Michael Docter of Winter Moon Farm. “Farm workers are the bedrock of the farm.” This grouping of local farmers knows this from experience. Without workers to harvest, the food will just sit there in the fields. Local farms will lose their crops, their very viability. Docter also touched on the commonly held belief that harvesting produce is something anyone can do. The oft-heard statement that farm workers fulfill a need for “low skill work” is a myth. He relayed here what our growers already know, that “…this work is specific and challenging. It is truer that the work is undesirable for most Americans”. Docter has been working with the same people for years. He knows his workers, and their families, and values their experience and skills.
The second speaker, also a farmer, has been in the agriculture business for 40 years and laid out his experience with labor in timeline fashion.
Year 1-10 – Locals who needed work. Terrible workers, poor attendance.
Year 11-20 – Experienced workers from Puerto Rico. Much better workers, occasional poor attendance.
Year 21-30 – Jamaican workers from the H2A program. Great workers, but the program is fraught with politics, corruption, red tape, and fines for doing it wrong. And it is expensive. However, this type of worker brought the farm to a professional level.
Year 31- present – The farm has hired local Latinos who are hardworking, reliable and professional. The farm has thrived.
Linda Kingsley from Twin Oaks Farm in Hadley, MA spoke about her own fears of the local immigrants being arrested and deported. The parents may not be citizens, but their children are. They work with documents, get on the books, pay taxes into the American systems: Social Security, FICA, railroad, income taxes, but likely do not file to get this money back. They are helping to support our system, but are afraid to take anything back out. She ended with just a question. “Who will help us harvest?”
The afternoon continued with State Representative John Scibak speaking. He is a co-sponsor of the Safe Communities Act which prohibits local law enforcement from doing the work of Immigration agents. He expressed his hope that it would pass the Senate.
A representative from the Farm Bureau spoke of an agricultural bill that would grant three-year working visas to people wanting to work here, and give a change of status to anyone already working on a farm. I mentioned it to Senator Elizabeth Warren at a town hall meeting in Salem, MA last week and am further investigating the details of what the bill would entail.
The impact of losing or even reducing the availability of reliable immigrant labor is not limited to those who directly employ them on their farms. One farmer got up to say that while he doesn’t utilize immigrant labor on his farm, these issues still affect him. The farmers work as a community, helping and supporting one another and he is in need of all of his neighbors. He knows who to call for a pallet of fertilizer or extra sheeting for a field house. If his fellow farms don’t have their workforce, and hence cannot survive, the consequences will ripple through the entire community. Nick Seaman, owner of The Black Sheep Deli of Amherst, stated he might be affected by the farm’s potential lack of labor because he buys his produce from these farms.
Putting a face on the phrase “farm worker,” a Mexican man got up to speak. He arrived from Oaxaca in 1994.That was when NAFTA went into effect. “To be an immigrant is due to desperation. No one wakes up and says ‘I want to leave my home.’” Really, think about that. This is not recreational travel or a joy, but a major life decision that involves leaving family and loved ones behind. He believes that Massachusetts has strong values as a state and hopes we can lead the nation in immigration reform.
Though we are clearly reliant on the immigrant workforce to harvest our crops, their continued presence on our farms and in our communities, is in jeopardy. The stories at this meeting relayed that the immigrant population is terrified. They do not want to go out for groceries, never mind go to the doctor if someone is ill. A woman who works in child care for farm workers discussed carpooling for not only the children but the workers, so they are not put into a situation where they fear they will be stopped.
The last few speakers I found very interesting as they started to touch on action items. What can we DO? Yes, sign a letter to the Senate and House, yes, send postcards (they do not need to be opened, hence are not held up by safety protocols). But what else?
At the very end of the meeting, the totals for our gross profits were tallied. Collectively those of us in the room would be at risk of losing 86 million in gross receipts. We would all be at risk of losing our source for local produce, losing neighbors, and losing businesses.
To quote the ACLU, numerous international human rights documents firmly establish the principle that no human being can be “illegal” or outside the protection of the law. Yet despite the clearly established principle that discrimination and abuse based on immigration status are violations of human rights, U.S. government policies continue to sanction human rights violations against migrants and immigrants.
No matter how you feel about immigration status, if these people are stopped, detained and deported, who will plant, who will harvest, who will pack our food?