Clampdown on farm workers breeds fear

Illegal immigrants and their employers wary during record-setting enforcement

December 25, 2006|By New York Times News Service

ELBA, N.Y. --A cold December rain gusted across fields of cabbage destined for New York City egg rolls, coleslaw and Christmas goose. Ankle-deep in mud, six immigrant farm workers raced to harvest 120,000 pounds before nightfall, knowing that at dawn they could find immigration agents at their door.

The farmer who stopped to check their progress had lost 28 other workers in a raid in October, all illegal Mexican immigrants with false work permits, at another farm here in western New York. Throughout the region, farmhands have simply disappeared by twos and threes, picked up on a Sunday as they went to church or to the laundromat. Whole families have gone into hiding, like the couple who spent the night with their child in a plastic calf hutch.

As record-setting enforcement of immigration laws upends old, unspoken arrangements, a new climate of fear is sweeping through the rural communities of western and central New York.

"The farmers are just petrified at what's happening to their workers," said Maureen Torrey, an 11th-generation grower and a director of the Federal Reserve Bank's Buffalo branch whose family owns this field and more than 10,000 acres of vegetable and dairy farms.

And for the first time in years, farmers are also frightened for themselves. In small towns divided over immigration, they fear that speaking out - or a disgruntled neighbor's call to the authorities - could make them targets of the next raid and raise the threat of criminal prosecution.

Here, where agriculture is the mainstay of a depressed economy, the mainstay of agriculture is largely illegal immigrant labor from Mexico. Now, more aggressive enforcement has disrupted a system of official winks, nods and paperwork that for years protected farmers from "knowingly" hiring the illegal immigrants who make up most of their work force.

"It serves as a polarizing force in communities," said Mary Jo Dudley, who directs the Cornell Farmworker Program, which does research. "The immigrant workers themselves see anyone as a potential enemy. The growers are nervous about everyone. There's this environment of fear and mistrust all across the board."

In a recent case that chilled many farmers, federal agents trying to develop a criminal case detained several longtime Hispanic employees of a small dairy farm in Clifton Springs and unsuccessfully pressed them to give evidence that the owners knew they were here illegally.

Since raids began to increase in early spring, arrests have netted dozens of Mexican farm workers on their way to milk parlors, apple orchards and vineyards, and prompted scores more to flee, affecting hundreds of farms. Some longtime employees with American children were deported too quickly for goodbyes, or remain out of reach in the federal detention center in Batavia, N.Y., where immigrants are tracked by alien registration number, not by name.

Federal officials say events here reflect a national commitment to more intensive enforcement of immigration laws, showcased in raids in December at Swift & Company meatpacking plants in six states.

The effort led to a record 189,924 deportations nationally during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up 12 percent from the year before, officials said, and 2,186 deportations from Buffalo, up 24 percent. It includes prosecuting employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, better cooperation with state and local law enforcement, and new money from Congress for more agents, more detention beds and quicker deportations.

Farm lenders and lobbyists warn of economic losses that will be measurable in unharvested crops, hundreds of closed farms and revenues lost in the wine tourism of the Finger Lakes. On the other side, supporters of stringent enforcement expect savings in schools and hospitals, and a boost to low wages as the labor market tightens.

The harvest of fear might be harder to chart, but it is here. It can be felt in Sodus, where an October raid left a dozen children without either parent for days, and in vineyards near Penn Yan, where a grower of fine cabernet grapes reluctantly permits a worker to sleep in a car, hidden in the vines that he prunes. Everywhere, rumors fly about why one place was raided and not another, feeding suspicion and a fear of speaking out.

For Rodney and Debbie Brown, the dairy farmers in Clifton Springs who lost six of their 10 employees to immigration arrests, the experience began like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

When no workers showed up at 6:30 a.m. Aug. 28 to help milk 580 waiting cows, Brown went to the farmhouse where most of their Hispanic employees lived, only to find it eerily empty. Some of the workers had been with the Browns for more than seven years.

"All of a sudden, they were all gone," Brown said. "It was very scary."

Later, the Browns learned that agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been waiting for the workers in their driveway at dawn with state troopers, and had whisked them to the 450-bed detention center in Batavia, where there were 3,094 admissions this year. Like an estimated 650,000 immigrants in New York State and 11 million nationally, the employees were in the United States illegally; the permits and Social Security cards they had shown to the Browns were fake.

What prompts such raids is rarely disclosed. But federal officials have said they pursue tips from the public, adding to uneasy speculation about private vendettas or political retaliation. Such talk abounded in Sodus, for example, after an October raid at Marshall Farms, a large breeder of ferrets and dogs for pharmaceutical companies. The consensus, several residents said, was that a disgruntled American employee had called in the complaint.

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