Can America's Farms Survive the Threat of Deportations?

Jun 07, 2017, 07:52 PM

It was one in the morning in late March when Luis, a 43-year-old Mexican man, tiptoed across the floor in his socks. He had just been startled from sleep by the sound of violent knocking on the door of the double-wide trailer where he and a few other farmworkers live. He was terrified; he leaned against the wall and listened.

Luis is no stranger to violence. Even though he has worked on a relatively tranquil apple farm in upstate New York’s mid-Hudson region for over a decade, he originally came to the United States to flee the violence in Guerrero state on Mexico’s west coast. For years there, vigilante militias have been fighting back against local warlords. The last time he was home, five years ago, Luis wanted to stay. He drove a pickup truck as a form of taxi service for hotel workers, but the warlords held him up at gunpoint, threatening to kill him if he didn’t give them a cut of his fares. (Pseudonyms have been used in several instances throughout this article to protect the identities of undocumented farmworkers and the farmers who employ them.)

“If you don’t pay,” Luis told me, “they kill you.” So he journeyed back to the United States, walking across Mexico every night for a week under the guidance of a “coyote,” or human smuggler. That, too, was frightening. He says he was so thirsty, he thought he might die.

But in March, in the middle of the night in the Hudson Valley, Luis’s fear wasn’t dehydration or gangs—he was afraid that agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement might be outside. He locked the door to his bedroom and waited. Eventually, the knocking stopped, but Luis barely slept that night. The next day, he found out that the hammering on the trailer’s door was an incoming guest worker who had wound up sleeping outside on the stoop of another sprawling double-wide trailer on the farm. During picking season in late summer, the farm houses dozens of seasonal and undocumented workers.

Luis had good cause to be afraid. About a week prior to the late-night knocking, ICE had picked up an undocumented farmworker on this same farm because he’d been convicted of two DUIs. And a few days after that, on a different apple farm just a few miles away, ICE had come before sunup for a 23-year-old man, Diego, who is from Guatemala. He had also been charged with DUIs. Diego is one of four brothers who, one by one over the years, all hitchhiked from Central America, walked across Mexico, and eventually found their way to the Hudson Valley to pick apples. He’s now detained, awaiting deportation proceedings in lower Manhattan. According to Paige Austin, an attorney at the nonprofit public-defense firm Bronx Defenders, Diego has a less than 5 percent chance of getting bail, much less staying in the United States.

Since Donald Trump took office in January, ICE has been newly empowered and encouraged to target undocumented immigrants with criminal records for deportation—a practice that winds up capturing a huge number of undocumented immigrants without criminal records, too. But, while the Trump administration may be more zealous about enforcement than previous administrations, they have not actually changed any laws. Existing immigration legislation has long been at odds with the U.S. economy and with farming communities across the country. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric is only having an impact because of the legal framework buttressing it. Which is why, after a string of ICE arrests cut through the local Hudson Valley farm community, word quickly spread among Hispanic farmworkers there that nobody is safe.

As in the rest of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as much as half of the farm workforce in New York is undocumented. The fear of deportation looming over Hudson Valley farmworkers is also impacting farmers—what they’re willing to plant and what they think they’ll be able to harvest.

“My ancestors are Irish and they were called all sorts of names,” Pete, a 58-year-ol...