Farm workers discuss hardships at UR panel

Ismael Castellanos isn’t asking for much. He works 12-hour days, 13 days in a row on a dairy farm in Genesee County. An undocumented worker from Vera Cruz, Mexico, Castellanos said he’s already received the opportunity to work by being in the United States.

“I’m not asking for anything,” he told a crowd of 100 through a translator. Except for the ability to drive without fearing he’ll be deported.

Castellanos spoke at a panel discussion Monday night at the University of Rochester about a growing farm worker movement in America. Members of Alianza Agricola, a group founded and led by Rochester-area farmworkers, and the Familias Unidas por la Justica, a union of agricultural workers in Washington state, comprised most of the panel.

Castellanos said before the Twin Towers fell in 2001, immigrants without Social Security numbers could get a New York State license, but Gov. Pataki issued an executive order in 2002 changing that. By 2004, the state revoked the licenses of those who had the old licenses. A year later, a campaign began to change the law so farm workers could drive legally again, but it hasn’t progressed.

With no way to drive legally, Castellanos and others said, farm workers are often isolated on the farms where they work. They cannot spend the money they earn locally, they can’t get needed medical care, and they can’t go to a sporting event or movie like most people can. If they drive illegally and get stopped, they’re subject to deportation.

“It’s a little ironic that we work so hard to produce milk and we can’t go to the store to buy that gallon of milk,” Castellanos said. But he’ll continue the long hours, he said, because it means his mother won’t have to work, his sister can go to a university, and his brothers have shoes.

Panelists urged students in the audience to become allies of groups like Alianza Agricola, helping farm workers to move about and advocate for licenses. They asked medical experts to lend their expertise so more medical care will be available to farm workers, who are often not covered by Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. And they urged everyone in the audience to send post cards to legislators to make licenses available to foreign farm workers again.

Victor Cortez, another undocumented worker, came to the United States 14 years ago from Oaxaca, Mexico. The first 10 years were in the shadows, he said through a translator, but his life has changed since Alianza Agricola was started, he said.

Almadelia Salinas Guzman, 18, also from Oaxaca, spoke in English, as she has been in the U.S. since the age of 6. Her father is a farm worker and two of her older brothers are, too, she said. Guzman, who lives in Livingston County, said she applied for protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, but is not sure how long that will last. “Right now I’m scared, I truly am. I’m scared DACA will be terminated.”

She, too, said the Alianza group had helped her family come out of the shadows, working as advocates for fellow farm worker families.

The Washington labor activists said New York’s situation, lying close to the Canadian border, seems similar to theirs. President of the union Ramon Torres led the group in repeated and spirited chants of “Si se puede!” or “Yes, we can,” the slogan of West Coast farm workers.

Torres said he represented “the people who are feeding you.”

“It takes getting up at 4 a.m., and leaving off our kids at day care for 12 to 14 hours. Nobody assures us we will come back and pick up our kids,” he said, suggesting deportation could prevent that. It’s sad to see a 50-year-old man in the fields, still trying to realize the American dream, but with no access to Social Security or Medicare, he said. “But it’s even harder to see our 12-year-olds kneeling in the mud for you.”

UR hosted the discussion to help build connections between students and the community, said Molly Ball, a history lecturer at the university.

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Farmers told hiring foreign workers is a complicated process

After most of a day hearing about federal, state and municipal laws governing the hiring of foreign workers, Barbara Bauman of Webster felt she learned enough to start asking more questions of the appropriate agencies.

Barbara and Daniel Bauman attended the Becker Forum in Liverpool this week, a full-day forum on current agricultural topics held each year on the day before the start of the Empire State Producers Expo in Syracuse.  This year the forum focused on the federal H-2A program that allows farms to hire foreign workers for up to 10 months of the year to handle seasonal work. Anyone attending couldn’t help but come to understand that it’s a complicated process to gain and maintain the many required approvals governing foreign workers.

“I’m not sure it’s going to work for us,” Barbara Bauman said, but noted that the forum, sponsored by the NY State Horticultural Society, was helpful.

The Baumans had attended the forum hoping to find a solution for farm labor shortages they’ve been experiencing during harvest time.

“It’s not so much finding people, it’s finding people who are willing to work,” Daniel Bauman said.  At least until now, the farm has relied on local domestic workers for its labor supply.

Several of the presenters were other farmers experienced in hiring H-2A workers who said they had the same problem before turning to workers from other countries. Allison DeMarree of DeMarree Fruit Farms in Williamson, Wayne County, said without the H-2A program, “we’d have to sell the farm.”

DeMarree and others said when they advertise in local, regional and out-of-state newspapers for workers, they get little to no response from American-born workers. Sometimes people call about the ads but clearly don’t meet even the basic requirement of having worked on a farm for a minimum of three months. And few, if any, show up for an interview.

Experts in labor and agricultural law detailed the complicated process for the approximately 80 people attending, starting with housing. The H-2A program requires that employers provide adequate housing for foreign workers, but the farms have to meet county and town codes for building and occupancy. So farmers were advised to start talking with county health department representatives at least a year before building or renovating housing in order to make sure whatever was prepared met the applicable codes.

Renewing approval each year also takes substantial time and presenters warned farmers to file paperwork at the earliest date allowed rather than wait until the last allowable date. Everything should be completed and approved at least 30 days before the workers are needed or else the workers won’t be there at the critical time, experts said.

“You have to think about all the moving pieces of the agencies in order to get to where you need, which is workers on the ground,” said Melissa Buckley, a foreign labor specialist with the state Department of Labor. “H-2A could be kind of a year-round activity for the employer,” she said.

When starting the paperwork, Buckley said, “get a cup of coffee, get a snack, get a notepad because, frankly, it’s going to take a while.” She advised farmers to “make the time or hire an agent.”

Peter Russell of Russell Farms in Appleton, Niagara County, has made use of an agent for the last two years, but warned that farmers still need to exercise due diligence about the process and maintaining their housing so inspections go well.

“Nobody’s going to look after your operation better than you,” Russell said.

Despite the complexity of the laws on foreign workers, use of the H-2A program in New York has increased substantially in recent years. Buckley presented figures showing 427 employers in New York asked for foreign workers in 2016, which resulted in 6,667 foreign workers being placed. Those numbers represent an increase of 21 percent in requests and 23 percent in number of workers since 2014.

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