From rural Mexico to rural Minnesota

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A contentious link in the food chain

Mexico is a rural country, and many of those immigrants have sought work in places they are familiar with. Since 1980, the nonmetro Latino population in this country has doubled; it is now the most rapidly growing demographic group in rural America, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. You’d think that for rural areas that have been losing population for the last several decades, such an influx of new blood would be welcome. But in fact there is a lot of tension surrounding the growth of Latino populations in small towns, and much of it has to do with the controversy over undocumented immigrant workers.

This article is part of a three-part series.
Part 1: Migrant workers in Minnesota
Part 2: From rural Mexico to rural Minnesota
Part 3: Advocating for change

Despite its reputation as a “land of immigrants,” there are limited options for people wanting to enter the U.S. legally.

Green Cards and temporary agriculture visas are extremely difficult to come by.

“The ways to come in here are so limited,” says Torres.

And so people desperate for a way to make a living swim rivers, climb fences, cross deserts and hitch secret rides. They put up with hunger, thirst, violence, robbery, rip-off artists who promise an easy path up north and border patrol agents under increasing pressure to “solve” the immigration issue, “In Mexico the pay is very low,” says Miguel Gonzalez, who works seasonally at Lakeside Foods, a cannery in Owatonna. He first snuck into Texas in 1992 and has been robbed and arrested.

Since then he has received documentation with the help of a sister who is a U.S. resident. “Right here I’m making about $1,400 every two weeks, and in Mexico in a week I’d make about a hundred. So there’s a huge difference.”

Raids, deportations, fear

Tensions over the immigration issue have been ratcheted up in recent months by a major government crackdown.

Recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency agents conducted large raids in the Minnesota communities of Worthington, Austin and Willmar. This is part of a nationwide sweep that, perhaps not coincidentally, is coinciding with the immigration debate in Washington. In fact, there were a record 189,924 deportations throughout the U.S. during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2006.

That’s a 12 percent increase from the year before. These raids have split up families, left crops unpicked, shut down plants and put the entire Latino community on edge.

Agriculture is particularly reliant on immigrant labor: around half of the 1.8 million farmworkers in the nation are probably undocumented. Many of those workers toil on the produce farms of Florida and California. But many of them also work on Midwestern vegetable operations. Estimates vary widely on how many undocumented Latinos there are in the Midwest. One estimate is that 18,000 to 45,000 undocumented Latinos live and work in Minnesota alone.

Anti-immigrant groups, like the Minnesota Coalition for Immigrant Reduction, claim “illegals” take jobs away from local, permanent residents.

But such arguments ignore an important fact: some sectors of our economy would collapse without immigrant workers.

In south-central Minnesota alone, Latino agricultural workers add nearly $25 million to the local economy, according to the Minneapolis Foundation.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” says Rhys Williams, who until recently was a partner in Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables, an organic produce farm in southeast Minnesota (Williams recently left the operation for health reasons). The farm seasonally employs a handful of Latinos who have Green Cards. They are paid $7 to $8 an hour and provided free food and housing. Featherstone gave up trying to hire local people when none applied for the jobs, or the ones that did only lasted a day or two.

“They do everything: weeding, seeding, drive tractor,” says Williams, who first worked with Latinos when he was in the orchard business in the Pacific Northwest. “They come prepared.

They’re agrarians.”

Tough to organize

The tense environment created by the immigration debate has been exploited by industrial agriculture. Workers put up with sometimes horrific working conditions knowing that making waves could, if they are undocumented, cause them to be deported. Even documented workers face a stark reality: they can always be replaced with others.

For Centro Campesino, it’s hard to organize workers who are transient (even the permanent U.S. residents go back to places like Texas to work during the winter months) and even more importantly, are frightened.

Torres describes how a Latino man recently contacted him about his job at a western Minnesota factory dairy operation: no breaks, no lunch time, seven-daya-week schedule. A refrigerator that was supposed to be for the workers instead was stocked with medications for the cows. In all, Torres tallied up 20 violations. In the end, the worker was unwilling to go public, for fear of losing his job.

“How can you organize and make change when the people are so scared?” Torres asks. “It all depends on what the workers are willing to do.” Unfortunately, some workers have learned hard lessons about standing up for their rights.

On a recent evening, Contreras and Torres visit the Sixto and Arceli Mendoza household. They live in a camp owned by the federal government in the midst of farm fields near Owatonna. It’s a crowded place, but a vast improvement over the company-owned camps, such as the one where Contreras had to fight so hard to get basics like shower curtains. For one thing, each government house has its own bathroom, and the rooms are bright and clean. Sixto, 55, is a friendly, powerfullybuilt man. Arceli, 46, is energetic and brassy. They are here with five children and two grandchildren, as well as a wife of one of their sons. The Mendozas, along with three of their adult children, work for Lakeside Foods. They come up here each summer from their home in Texas.

After November they go back to Texas to work winter jobs. Recently, Sixto worked during the off-season for a company that makes plastic parts for vacuums.

He first started coming to the U.S. when he was 16 to work in orange and tangerine orchards in the southern U.S. He entered the country illegally at first, but in 1974 received documentation through a government amnesty program.

Sixto’s work career is textbook migrant: he’s detasseled corn in Iowa, picked asparagus in Michigan, harvested potatoes, even shaped Christmas trees.

His hands show the work history: one finger is missing from a restaurant accident and he’s lost the use of another because of a snapped tendon he suffered while shaping trees.

Now Sixto operates a forklift at Lakeside. At one time the money was relatively good for him—$8.75 an hour.

But there was a supervisor who treated people badly. “He’d yell at people and say things to people. He was pushing people. He was very aggressive,” recalls Sixto through an interpreter.

Things got so bad that Sixto worked with Centro Campesino to help organize an election to establish a union at the plant. It was looking good in the run-up to the vote, with many workers saying they supported forming a union, but the proposal was eventually defeated.

“A lot of workers will tell you that they were with you, but I don’t know what happened,” says Sixto. “After that I lost a lot of confidence. You don’t feel comfortable anymore just having a conversation with your co-workers.” Now he’s paying the price for his activism. When the Mendozas came back to Minnesota the season after the election, Sixto was given a harder job that paid only $7.70 an hour.

“It was supposed to be a job for two people, but they made it into a job for one,” he says. “To be honest with you I’m just here to support my family. Because now it’s five of us working here. If it was just me, I wouldn’t be working here.”

Tough on the children

Such setbacks are frustrating, but the staffers at Centro Campesino take heart from other victories. For example, they’ve been able to get better housing for cannery workers, as well as buffers around migrant camps where crop pesticides can’t be sprayed, making it safer for children to play outside. Centro has also made strides in getting companies to provide childcare. This is a critical issue for migrant workers, who often work 12-hour shifts seven-days-a-week.

“Child care was the thing that ignited the movement,” says Torres of Centro Campesino’s genesis.

On a recent evening, Miguel Gonzalez, 39, slumps in a chair at the government migrant camp after putting in a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift at Lakeside. His wife, Maria, is now doing her 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift running a machine that seals cans. He gets paid $9.50 an hour for maintaining the wastewater system; Maria receives $8.05. Their three children—ages 9-12—are watching TV or doing homework (they go to school in nearby West Concord).

“I see my wife when she gets in.

‘Goodbye husband’ she says,” Gonzalez says with a wan smile.

In Texas, the school year starts in August, while in Minnesota it’s not until after Labor Day. Migrants like the Mendozas often don’t go back to Texas until sometime in November, when the last of the vegetable canning is done.

“It’s very difficult for the children.

Last year when we went back to school in Texas my little girl cried for like six months because she didn’t like school down there,” says Mendoza. “It’s something they have to get used to. I just want to make sure they go to school, and graduate and all that.” Centro Campesino is raising money for a scholarship fund for the children of migrants and immigrants who want to go to college. One of the group’s main pushes is passage of the “Dream Act,” which would allow undocumented students to go to college and pay in-state tuition. But Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty opposes passage of such a proposal, and was successful in killing it during the 2007 legislative session.