The true cost of food? Ask an undocumented agricultural worker

Washington's Skagit Valley is loaded with rich, fertile soil farmed by immigrant workers, but you don't hear about them when you're buying flats of raspberries.
Washington's Skagit Valley is loaded with rich, fertile soil farmed by immigrant workers, but you don't hear about them when you're buying flats of raspberries.

When Modesto Hernandez, 35, walks these days, he grips the curved handle of a brown metal cane to steady himself.

In 2008, Hernandez was pruning rows of raspberry canes in Whatcom County along the northern border. Red raspberries, as a commodity, are valued at $44 million in Washington state. The fields that day were covered with shin-high snow, and Hernandez was wearing rubber boots.

After he complained of losing feeling in his feet, the farmer he was working for provided no real or long-term assistance, he said. A week later, a doctor removed half of both of Hernandez’s feet.

At one point, as thoughts of survival swirled in his head, he told one person: “If you cut your feet off, I’ll put your feet in mine and I’ll go work.”

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Modesto Hernandez stands in the living room of his apartment on Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Mike Kane for Equal Voice News

In 2008, Hernandez was one of an estimated 1 million undocumented immigrants who planted, pruned and picked crops in the United States. He helped ensure that U.S. agriculture – worth $297.2 billion as an industry – made it to homes worldwide. But Hernandez had little, if any, health and worker protection.

For more than 25 years, the United States has not addressed immigration policy, at least comprehensively, and the people that policy affects. But this year could bring significant change to a system that many dub as “broken.”

President Obama and federal lawmakers are considering various aspects of immigration policy, including U.S.-Mexico border security and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the country.

Guest Worker Program

As lawmakers study policy changes, U.S. farmers and ranchers are pushing for a new agriculture guest worker program.

The current guest worker program, which traces its roots to the bracero (day laborer) program initiated during World War II, enables U.S. farmers to recruit people in other countries for temporary or seasonal agriculture work if they can show a domestic labor scarcity.

Farmers say their new labor proposal would offer stable access to a legal workforce for the agriculture industry as well as flexibility and employment freedom for at least some guest workers. For undocumented agriculture workers already in the country, it could mean permanent legal residency.

The American Farm Bureau Federation says the proposal could replace the H-2A program, which the federation of 6.2 million farmers and ranchers calls rigid and bureaucratic. The H-2A program is the current policy for international agriculture workers in the country.

For the federation, a new guest worker program is one of two top issues for 2013, said Kristi Boswell, the organization’s congressional relations director. “It’s absolutely critical for agriculture and our food supply that we have a solution this year,” she said.

Boswell added that a comprehensive immigration bill might not succeed if it excludes a program for farmers to recruit in other countries. “This is a huge issue for our members,” she said. “They have stress. They don’t know if they are going to be in business next year.”

In late February, Bob Stallman, the group’s president, testified before Congress in support of a revised program. He talked about the federation’s members’ need to be certain they have an available labor force, competitive costs and offering workers protection.

Rosalinda Guillen, a farmworker advocate in Washington state, however, questions whether such a program is needed at all. “Farmers have said that they have a skilled and stable labor force — that has been on their farms for 10 years — that they want to see legalized,” she said.

There are enough people in the country, Guillen added, to do the agriculture work, especially if immigration reform provides legal status for the undocumented. Guillen is executive director of Community to Community Development, a Bellingham, Wash.-based group devoted to supporting farmworkers, immigrants and food quality.

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A man works in the fields of Whatcom County on Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Mike Kane for Equal Voice News

Farmworker and civil rights groups specifically point to documented cases of abuse, safety problems and wage theft in the guest worker program and agriculture industry.

This year, the Southern Poverty Law Center updated its 2007 report, “Close to Slavery,” which is a critical look at the country’s H-2 guest worker program. The report found that guest workers from other countries end up being sources of inexpensive labor. In many cases, critics say, they become expendable.

“Congress should look before it leaps,” the report reads. “It harms the interests of U.S. workers … by undercutting wages and working conditions for those who labor at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.”

One conclusion of the report: The current guest worker program should neither be duplicated nor expanded.

Agriculture Workforce

The categories of international guest workers and farm workers already in the United States can mix easily.

Farmers in the country need more than 1 million agriculture workers each year, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Boswell said, but they have “low access” to a stable domestic workforce. “We have come to rely on an immigrant labor force,” she said.

In fiscal 2012, the federal government issued 65,345 H-2A visas for workers, the U.S. State Department reported. Nearly 96 percent of those visas were handed out in North America. Ten years ago, in fiscal 2002, 31,538 H-2A visas were granted. In fiscal 1997, the number of H-2A visas issued was 16,011.

The United Farm Workers Union has told Congress that there are more than 1 million undocumented people in the country’s agriculture industry. Some lawmakers estimate that noncitizens perform from 50 percent to 80 percent of the work in U.S. agriculture.

Seasonal agriculture work is hard and labor intensive and can take place in remote areas.

Boswell expressed the farmers’ federation’s concern that undocumented farmworkers already in the country would leave the industry, should they gain legal status in a comprehensive immigration law. She noted that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave legal status to undocumented immigrants, and that, by the 1990s, farmers had difficulty finding field workers.

Although some parts of the country, such as California and the Southwest, might have enough people for seasonal work, other areas, such as upstate New York, might not, Boswell said. A guest worker program, she said, makes sense.

Last month, the Washington Farm Labor Association confirmed it had started recruiting 3,000 guest workers from Mexico. The association, which serves as a human resources agency for Pacific Northwest farmers, said growers brought in 4,000 guest workers to Washington state in 2012, according to the Yakima Herald.

Efforts to reach Dan Fazio, the labor association director, for comment were unsuccessful.

But Bellingham farmworker advocate Rosalinda Guillen asked: “Why are the farmers recruiting in Mexico? What is going to happen to the legalized work force or those who are going to be legalized? It’s like intellectual capital that you’re losing.”

And in an opinion piece for New America Media, Rick Mines and Ed Kissam contend that, after the 1986 immigration law offered legal status to undocumented immigrants, farmworkers who left the industry did so because of low wages and the seasonal nature of agriculture work — which made it difficult to support a family.

Cindy Hahamovitch, whose book, “No Man’s Land,” examines guest workers and deportable labor, pointed to a potential conflict between legalization for undocumented immigrants, including a path to citizenship, and a new guest worker program.

“You’d hate to deny legal status to 11 million people because of this issue,” she said. “During the debate that led up to the 1986 immigration reform, there was a compromise between those who advocated legalization and those who wanted a bigger, less-regulated guest worker program. Legalization occurred, but the guest worker program grew dramatically.”

On the Ground

Inside a two-bedroom apartment in Whatcom County, Modesto Hernandez reclines on a faded blue couch. He wears a gray baseball cap with the word “BULL DOG” on it. Often, during the conversation, his soft eyes gaze into the distance.

Even to this day, he does not know the name of the farmer for whom he worked in 2008. “Every door was closed,” he says, describing his feelings, through an interpreter.

Whenever possible, Hernandez talks with workers about safety and dealing with farmers who might just be “bad actors.” Hernandez has found support among other workers and community organizations. He lives with relatives and roommates, several of whom are from his home state of Guerrero in Mexico.

In Whatcom County, the average farm worker earns about $10,000 per year, according to advocate Rosalinda Guillen. Hernandez said he receives about $100 each month in assistance from the Washington state government. That money helps pay for the $600 monthly rent for the apartment he shares with five adults and a two-year-old girl.

With legal status or citizenship possible, he thinks about how immigration reform might affect him. One wish, he says, is to be able to return to Mexico and visit his family in Guerrero. He lacks documents to travel. He also lacks a driver’s license.

“Maybe I’ll never be able to go back to Mexico to see my family,” he says.

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Roommates of Modesto Hernandez, Raul Hernandez, left, and Marcos Hernandez, sit in the living room of their apartment on Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Mike Kane for Equal Voice News.

Marcos Hernandez, a 34-year-old relative and roommate, sits on a couch on the other side of the room. His jeans are wet up to his knees. He had just returned from pruning berry fields. He talks about a farmer not paying him and about his fear that if he speaks up, the police or U.S. Border Patrol might show up.

“We don’t want to say anything. We’re on his property. I don’t want to get in trouble,” he says, through an interpreter.

One farmer, he says, promised to pay him 33 cents for each berry bush that he pruned. But sometimes, the actual amount drops to 23 cents per bush.

Marcos Hernandez also thinks about immigration reform and gaining a social security card so he can have freedom to apply for jobs. “Maybe this can change my life,” he says, referring to immigration reform.

For Modesto Hernandez, who is wearing a pair of sturdy boots, there are other concerns. Splotchy patches of mold have formed on the walls near his bed, which sits in the living room. He asks about the best way to remove the mold, which can cause asthma. Water damage is apparent in parts of the apartment ceiling. He also is concerned about the health of his nephew, who lives in the apartment.

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Modesto Hernandez looks at mold on the ceiling above where he sleeps in the living room of his apartment on Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Mike Kane for Equal Voice News

Later at her office, Guillen describes Modesto Hernandez as an intelligent, persistent man. Her comments paint a vivid picture — he is a survivor.

Guillen says it pains her to look at raspberries for sale on market shelves. “How much did it cost to raise those raspberries?” asks Guillen, a former farmworker herself.

“How much did Modesto’s feet cost?”

This article was originally published on Equal Voice News. It is the first of a two-story series looking at different sides of U.S. immigration policy and the impact on people. Read Part 2, "Accidental Foreigners: America's Forgotten Citizens," here.

Equal Voice News reporter Kathy Mulady contributed to this article. 



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About the Authors & Contributors

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Brad Wong

Brad Wong is a former editor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist.