[Marxism] Immigrants Go From Farms to Jails, and a Climate of Fear Settles In

Jon Flanders jonathan.flanders at verizon.net
Sun Dec 24 07:36:14 MST 2006

A reign of terror in upstate New York that reminds me of the
days of slavery. We have our work cut out for us here.

Jon Flanders

December 24, 2006

Immigrants Go From Farms to Jails, and a Climate of Fear Settles In

ELBA, N.Y. — A cold December rain gusted across fields of cabbage
destined for New York City egg rolls, cole slaw and Christmas goose.
Ankle-deep in mud, six immigrant farmworkers 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,
farm hands have simply disappeared by twos and threes, picked up on a
Sunday as they went to church or to the laundry. 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

“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 simply 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

In small towns like Sodus, Dresden and Elba, where a welcome sign
declares that the population of 2,369 is “Just Right,” some residents
quietly approve of the crackdown. They are unhappy with the growing
year-round presence of Mexicans they consider a drain on public
services, resentful of the political clout of farmers, or concerned
about the porous borders denounced nightly on CNN by Lou Dobbs. Others
are torn, praising Mexican families but worried that some farmers
exploit them. 

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 may be harder to chart, but it is already 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 6 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. on Aug. 28 to help milk 580
waiting cows, Mr. 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,” Mrs. Brown said. “It was very

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 some 11 million
nationally, the employees were in the United States illegally; the
permits and Social Security cards they had shown to the Browns were

What prompts such raids is rarely disclosed. But federal officials have
said that 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. 

More than 18 workers, many of them longtime employees with children in
Sodus schools or day care, were summoned by name to the office from
their jobs cleaning animal cages, and taken away — the men to Batavia,
the women to unspecified county jails. 

“A lot of the employees down there were very heartbroken to see the
women walk out with shackles around their feet and handcuffs chained
around their waists, crying,” said Cliff DeMay, a large private labor
contractor who supplies agricultural businesses in seven states with
workers, and accepts their papers at face value — part of a system that
has allowed deniability to everyone but the illegal worker. 

“The I.C.E., they’ve always picked up people on complaints,” he added.
“It’s not the Border Patrol or I.C.E.’s fault. It’s the fault of our
damn politicians.”

But Mr. DeMay also echoed a widespread view that those who criticized
the raids were asking for trouble. 

Others, including the Farm Bureau, pointed to the unusual
intensification of the dairy investigation after Mr. Brown was quoted in
a Sept. 11 Associated Press account. Michael W. Gilhooly, a spokesman
for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, responded that raids were
“carefully planned” and “result from investigative leads and

Mrs. Brown, 46, said she was summoned to the federal building in
Rochester and questioned for an hour and a half by immigration agents
who threatened to subpoena her phone records. Federal prosecutors then
brought felony charges against the workers for using fake Social
Security numbers to get their milking jobs.

But rather than turn against their former employers in exchange for
leniency, as prosecutors wanted, the Mexican men pleaded guilty to
felonies and accepted deportation, said Michael Bersani and Anne
Doebler, lawyers who represented them in immigration court. Government
lawyers would not discuss the case.

Neighboring farmers, who helped the Browns milk, seemed shaken. “A lot
of them say, ‘We should write letters to the editor, but we don’t want
to draw attention to ourselves,’ ” Mrs. Brown said. “Everyone is very

Some have a different perspective. Ray Woodhams, 58, a Sodus resident
who works at a Rochester hospital that was sued by Hispanic employees
who were barred from speaking Spanish, said he was glad to read of the

“The farmers have got their view, but they’re shortsighted — they’re not
looking at the country as a whole,” said Mr. Woodhams, who notes that he
is a registered Democrat and the son of a Dutch immigrant farmer. “The
farmers say they can’t get labor. Well, if they paid a decent wage,
maybe they could.” The Browns, echoing many farmers, counter that they
have found no one steady to fill the vacant jobs. 

Many labor advocates, after years of fighting farmers for wage and hour
protections, find themselves in an uneasy alliance with their old foes. 

“Suddenly everybody’s interest is the same: Save the lives of the
migrants,” said John Ghertner, who is on the board of Rural and Migrant
Ministry, an interfaith advocacy group. “From the farmers’ perspective,
so they have labor. From our point of view, human rights.”

The smaller the farm and the more settled the work force, the more
wrenching the arrests. Or so it seemed as friends gathered around the
wife of a vineyard worker arrested in Yates County four days earlier, on
his way to prune vines he had tended for a decade. His three children,
14, 11 and 2, are all American-born.

His wife, weeping, described how the agents who had taken him and two
others into custody on the road circled back to the house to try to take
her, too. As the agents banged at the door and tried to open it, she hid
in the bedroom with the 2-year-old, she said, and put her hand over his
mouth when he started to cry. 

Victor Feria Reyes, the state-licensed labor contractor who had
dispatched the father and the others to the vineyard, said that
throughout the Finger Lakes, his crews were down by half. “A lot of
people hate us,” he said as his daughter Elenita, 8, leaned close. “They
just say, ‘Take them away.’ ” 

The owner of the vineyard, who had lost three of his five workers to
immigration arrests, called them “part of my family,” but begged not to
be named. “I’m afraid of retaliation,” he said.

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