Whatcom farm workers wonder how new immigration law might affect them

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 6, 2013 

Farm Workers

Louis Munoz milks cows at the Lenssen dairy farm Thursday, June 27, 2013, north of Lynden. The dairy farm has 600 cows.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

They have cars and big-screen TVs. They live in apartments with pet budgies and turtles. Their kids' smiling school portraits hang on the walls.

What they don't have is the legal right to live and work in the United States, even though Whatcom County's agriculture economy relies on their willingness to work long hours doing hard and dirty jobs in berry fields and dairy barns.

Their lives are luxurious compared to what they had in Mexico, where their families scratched away at small plots, trying to grow enough corn, beans and squash to keep themselves fed. But they know that one false move could uproot them and their children from the good life they worked for here, and put them back where they came from.

Now, as the long-simmering debate over U.S. immigration law comes to a rolling boil in Congress, they watch, wait and worry. Will a new law give them a chance to become legal residents? Are they in danger of losing their jobs to a new group of "guest workers" from their native country?

"There are a lot of people here already, working for years," said 34-year-old Fausta Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Oaxaca when she was 19. "They want to keep on working. Give us permission to stay and work and support our kids. I don't know what would become of me if I had to go back to Mexico with my kids."

Rodriguez and her husband work in a local berry-packing plant. They have five children. All but her oldest daughter were born in the U.S.

Her kids attend local schools, and she says they get good grades.

"It's not all good," Rodriguez added. "There's some racism from some of the kids. Some people treat you bad because of your color."

She tells them if they study hard they will be fine.

"The truth is, I'm afraid," Rodriguez said. "I'm afraid that one day they will catch me and ship me out. I'm not as afraid for myself as I am for my kids. I want them to have a better life than I did. I tell them to study. I don't want to see them working in the fields. I don't want them to have to go through the racism, the stuff we've had to deal with."

Nelida Moreno, another Oaxaca native, talks about her struggles as she boils hot red chiles on the stove in her Ferndale apartment. The vapors are strong enough to make your eyes water.

Moreno said she and her husband came north reluctantly, hating to leave friends and family behind. But they were barely getting enough to eat from their little plot of land, and they had no prospects for anything better.

The couple had four children, but at this point, Moreno is raising them herself. She said her husband was forced back to Mexico by immigration authorities in 2009 after he was detained by Lynden police. She was pregnant with her youngest son at the time.

During the winter, Moreno said she can make about $70 a day pruning blueberries and raspberries. Like most such workers, she is paid by the plant, not by the hour.

"We are running," Moreno said.

Every winter, raspberry farms hire pruners to tie the new growth on each raspberry plant to the support wires strung between poles. Pruners also cut away dead growth from the previous year's harvest, gather up the waste and carry it out of the fields for disposal.

Moreno has also planted blueberries, working on her knees, digging holes in the mud,

"The fruit is delicious," she said, "but the work is hard."

Moreno wishes growers would pay just a bit more. And she wishes she could do her job without looking over her shoulder. Many of the berry fields are close to the Canadian border, and Border Patrol cars often cruise past the fields where she works.

"We go out with fear," she said.

If her kids are not in school, they tag along. Day-care expenses are out of the question.

"It's hard to be both mother and father," Moreno said.

Olga Vargas, still another Oaxaca native, said her family sold its tiny plot of land to get money for the trip north. She is 34 and has lived in this country half her life. She has two daughters, one of them born this year.

Work in the berry fields keeps food on the table with some money left over for extras, but it's hard to save much, Vargas said. She would like to become a legal resident so she can stop worrying about deportation and go back to Mexico now and then to visit family. Like most parents, she hopes her daughters have things better than she did.

"I want to see them have a better life, a better education and not suffer like we have, in the cold and the rain," Vargas said.

Erika Rosas grew up in the state of Michoacán. She got married there, and she and her husband helped his father work his land. Like other Whatcom County farm workers, the couple came here 15 years ago hoping to get beyond subsistence agriculture. They also hoped to do something besides farm work, but farm work was all they found. They have four children.

Her husband ties raspberry canes, leaving home at 6 or 7 a.m. and coming back 12 hours later.

Her oldest son is 16. Rosas said his biggest fear is that his parents could get deported.

"We tell him to study so he won't have to work in the fields," Rosas said.

Her 14-year-old son wants to be a veterinarian. Her daughter wants to be a doctor. The older kids, who were not born here, are ready to join their parents in the fields in hope of saving up some money to tide them over if they have to go back.

She and her friends want to come out of the shadows.

"We need to stop the fear," Rosas said. "Let us fix our papers."

Hermelinda Lopez came to Whatcom County in 2004, after three years in California. She, too, came from Oaxaca with her family.

Lopez said she likes farm work, but would like to do it without fear.

"We are working people," Lopez said. "We like to work for a living."

She has three daughters, and fears deportation or loss of her livelihood to guest workers.

"I hope they give us the right to stay here and work and support our kids," Lopez said. "I hope they (her daughters) can get more education and become a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer or something like that."

DAIRY WORKERS

A berry farm needs workers by the dozens during harvest. Whatcom County's other agricultural mainstay is dairy. The need for labor may not be as great, but the "harvest" never stops.

Troy Lenssen and his brother Terry have 600 cows at their farm on Pangborn Road. At any given moment of every day, one of Lenssen's four workers is in the milking facility getting cows into position, cleaned up, on and off the milking machines, and swabbed with disinfectant before they head back to their feed stalls.

Milking is more mechanized than it was 100 years ago, and it may be even more mechanized in the future, but for now there is still a lot of hand labor to be done. The teats of each cow are wiped with her own clean terrycloth wash rag as a sanitation procedure during the milking process. That means 30 loads of laundry every day.

Lenssen said he and his brother gave up doing their own milking in 2009 and now rely on hired hands for that part of the business.

Before they quit doing a share of the milking work themselves, Lenssen said he and his brother put on pedometers to figure out how far they walked during a milking shift. It worked out to about 12 miles a day. After they gave it up, "we both gained 10 pounds in two weeks," Lenssen said.

Finding people to do that work is a challenge. The labor itself, not the pay, is the issue.

"We've never had a white guy show up looking for work, ever," Lenssen said. "I pay more ($14 per hour) than any fast-food restaurant, and the fast-food restaurants are full of white kids."

The Lenssen brothers' own work day still stretches from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Welding repair work keeps them busy much of that time: 1,400-pound cows break things when they get spooked and stumble around. They also do field work, raising the crops that make up part of their cows' specialized diet.

Lenssen said he's fortunate to have a crew of milkers who have been with him for several years. They are all natives of Mexico and, as far as he knows, are legal U.S. residents.

But that is not the case everywhere.

WORKERS HARD TO FIND

Dairy farmers and other labor-intensive agriculture operations are finding it increasingly difficult to get workers. Increased border security makes it harder for new workers to find their way north. And workers already here are more likely to be caught and deported.

That has happened a couple of times to Abdias Suarez-Gonzalez, 28. Both times, he managed to find his way back north. He works at another dairy in the Lynden area, where he said he is treated well.

Before he left his home state of Veracruz at age 16, he made a meager living picking coffee. After crossing the border, he made the trek all the way to Whatcom County, where his father was picking berries. His mother and brothers also live here.

His work day starts at 3 a.m. six days a week. He has been knocked over and trampled a couple of times - once bad enough to land him in the emergency room, where his boss paid half the bill.

"It's not hard work, but it's risky," Suarez-Gonzalez said. "It's good, pretty good pay. There's nowhere else to work."

Fear of deportation is the big cloud over his head.

"When you go out, you're afraid," he said. "You're always afraid, thinking one of these days it will be you."

He has made two unplanned trips home, once when a Border Patrol agent confronted him as he stopped for a soda at a convenience store on Badger Road, and once when he showed up at the Whatcom County Courthouse to deal with a traffic accident.

The farmers who rely on people like these are worried, too. Many have long relationships with workers they don't want to lose, and they hope immigration reform will get those workers out of the shadows and the farmers themselves out of legal limbo. They don't see doing without Mexican workers as a viable option.

"We simply don't have the labor available," said Whatcom County berry grower John Clark. "We don't have that many people willing to go out in the fields and do stoop labor."

He and others in the industry see no reason why those who have gathered their crops for many years should be forced to leave. Why not give them a chance to stay here legally?

"Those people who have been here and have contributed, and haven't gotten into trouble, that would be acceptable," Clark said.

But growers and farm workers part ways to some extent on guest worker programs, which seem likely to be part of any major new immigration law. Those programs are designed to enable farmers to bring in new temporary foreign workers if they can demonstrate there is a labor shortage.

Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, notes that once today's undocumented farm workers obtain legal status, it will be a lot easier for them to seek other kinds of work. That could be a problem for farmers that a guest worker provision could solve. Guest workers would get short-term visas to do agricultural jobs, and return to their home countries when the crops are in. Growers don't want to push out the workers they already rely on, but they need an alternative labor source if those workers move on to other things after they get legal status, Bierlink said.

The final shape of a new immigration law - if there is one - is anything but certain, as conservative House Republicans confront a Senate bill that won some Republican votes. Some conservatives in and out of Congress already are denouncing the Senate bill for being too soft on illegal immigrants, while immigrant rights advocates denounce it as too punitive and too focused on massive and costly new security measures along the southern border.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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