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Hispanic men and women - some of them quite young - provide labor illegally on many dairy farms. Photo: David Sommerstein
Hispanic men and women - some of them quite young - provide labor illegally on many dairy farms. Photo: David Sommerstein

Undocumented farmworkers weigh benefits against risks

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New York's farms employ about 60,000 people and no one knows how many of those workers are here illegally. According to one estimate, 70 percent of the state's agricultural workforce is undocumented.
Some stay for years, long enough to raise a family. But it's risky.

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Reported by

Matt Richmond
Reporter, The Innovation Trail

Salvador is 32 years old and from the Mexican state of Veracruz. He’s been in the U.S. illegally since 2008, working on a dairy farm 20 minutes from Ithaca. He didn’t want to give his real name.

Salvador lives in a trailer down the hill from his boss’ dairy barn and works 6 days a week, for up to 70 hours each week. When he needs to leave the farm, he pays for a ride from someone with a license. And he only leaves to do what he needs to, for grocery shopping or sending money to Mexico, then comes right back to the farm.

“When you go out are you worried about what might happen?”

“Yes, always.”

Salvador first crossed the border in 2005, went back to Mexico after two years and made the trip again in 2008. He says the walk across the border has gotten much harder. It took him eight days, two of those days were spent without food or water. He had to pay 5,000 pesos to gangs along the way and was turned back once when Border Patrol sent a dog after him.

“Once a person gets here, it might be a month, two months, three months, but they’ll find a job. The most dangerous part is getting here.”

Lawmakers in Washington are considering an overhaul of the country’s immigration system. The proposed legislation offers legal status to farm workers like Salvador, giving them what’s known as a blue card, as long as they have been in the country since the end of 2011 and have spent enough time doing farm work.

For those that still want to come to the US, the bill includes a new guest worker visa. The existing program, the H-2A visa, hasn’t proved a viable alternative to illegal immigration. The new W-visa would allow workers into the country for three years and let them move from one employer to another.

“I can’t explain well what the life of an American is, I haven’t lived it.”

Marta is another undocumented worker in the dairy industry who didn’t want to use her real name. She lives with her husband and four kids on a dairy farm north of Geneva and arrived in the U.S. 13 years ago.  

“But it’s different because my kids want to go visit places, they want to get out, but the police could stop me and what would happen to my kids?”

Two of her children were born in the U.S. and are citizens. Marta’s been living on this farm for 10 years and works long hours: 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.

“Do you get any sort of overtime?”

“Que es eso? No.”

Marta tells the story of her younger sister’s death at the age of 18 in Mexico. She tried to send money but used the wrong name at Western Union and couldn’t produce the right ID to fix the problem. Marta says she had to choose between seeing her sister and risking the trip back across the border or staying in the U.S. with her kids.

“And those are the things that make you want to have your papers. It’s not for me that I want my papers, I don’t need my papers, so far they haven’t found me. I’m here.”

Even though she makes $7.50 an hour and her husband only makes a little bit more, they’re able to support four kids here and family members in Mexico. Marta says they save all the money they can because they could be sent home tomorrow. But all that would change if they were given legal status.

“The first thing I’d do is bring my kids to Disneyland, that’s what I want to do is bring my kids to Disneyland.”

Marta says she’d try to open a salon and buy her own car and house if legal status becomes an option. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today, more than double the amount in 1986, the last time Congress offered legal status.

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