Humberto “Archie” Mondragòn came to the United States from Mexico in 1985 because he said he could make in a day in the U.S. what he’d make in a week back home.
His plan was to stay for a few years, get rich and return to Mexico. But plans changed, Mondragòn said.
He married here and had two kids. He’s now the production manager at Ralph’s Greenhouse, an organic farm in Mount Vernon where he helps manage about 50 farmworkers.
Many farmworkers he knows in Skagit County have a new sense of anxiety and fear this year – fear they'll get detained and deported even if they are here legally.
Many local farmers and farmworkers said those feelings stem from what has been said by President Donald Trump, who while campaigning called undocumented Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists.
Since taking office, Trump has signed executive orders that include an increase in Border Patrol agents and deportations, and he hopes to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
This year, farm owners say it’s already been more difficult than ever to find workers for Skagit County farms. If that continues, Skagit County’s $300 million agriculture industry could be in trouble, said Washington State University Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran.
“Most of the agriculture laborers are Latino,” McMoran said. “You think about all the berries and flower crops in Skagit County being harvested, losing that workforce would have a major impact on Skagit agriculture.”
There is a lot more concern and worry. Even if you have a green card, you worry. Everybody has got to know people who aren’t legal.
Dave Hedlin, owner of Hedlin Family Farms
The Skagit Valley Herald talked to about a dozen local farmers about the difficulty they are having finding workers. Many would not talk on the record for fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeting their farms for raids or audits.
Other farmers who were contacted chose not to comment.
The Skagit Valley Herald also talked to farmworkers, with only Mondragòn willing to provide his name. He did so only because he became a U.S. citizen in 1997.
Worsening labor shortage
Schuh Farms, like many farms in Skagit County, has sign-up sheets on which prospective workers can write their names and contact information. When berry season heats up, the Schuhs will call those who signed up in order to get their berries picked.
“We only have a couple names right now,” Andy Schuh said. “We should have a lot more.”
Other farmers, such as Tim Terpstra of Ralph’s Greenhouse, have seen the same thing.
“We don’t have any lists of extra workers right now,” he said.
The shortage isn’t new – it’s been an issue for the past five years or so. Farmers say an increase in the minimum wage and a lack of interest in agriculture jobs are part of the problem.
This year, Schuh said the labor shortage is worse, and he said a big part of that is the uncertainty around immigration enforcement.
“It’s definitely the immigration issue that’s making it worse. There are less people around,” he said.
Dave Hedlin, owner of Hedlin Family Farms, has seen an increase in fear and uncertainty among farmworkers this year.
“It’s palpable,” Hedlin said. “There is a lot more concern and worry. Even if you have a green card, you worry. Everybody has got to know people who aren’t legal.”
He added, “My signup sheet here is like everybody else’s. It’s smaller this year than last.”
Part of the fear comes from the possibility of ICE raids, where ICE agents make unscheduled visits to farms to check paperwork looking for undocumented immigrants.
Sarah Wixson, who specializes in employment law for the firm Stokes Lawrence, spoke to farmers in February at the Skagit Ag Summit about preparing for raids.
She advised having a plan of action, such as having people to call during a raid and a specific location for storing employment eligibility verification forms, which are called I-9s.
“If there is a raid, you should have something in place so you are in control, just like any disaster like an earthquake or tornado,” she said.
We’ve heard from a number of folks ... that the raids will be coming. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
Allen Rozema, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland
Mike Youngquist of Mike & Jean’s Berry Farm in Mount Vernon has a small operation now, but used to hire large numbers of workers seasonally.
He said he had raids on his farm decades ago. When that happened, his farmworkers would run away in all directions, hiding in cars, ditches and barns.
“Then the problems would start,” he said. “No one knew where they were. Their kids had nobody to pick them up from school … It’s terrible. Some of the officers here are good and smart. Others, like ones who came here from the southern border, thought they were saving the world by chasing mothers.”
As far as Wixson knows, so far there have been no raids on farms in the state this season. In fact, she said there hasn’t been a raid at a farm in the state since before the Obama administration.
Instead, ICE has been performing audits, which consist of scheduled visits to farms to check employment paperwork such as I-9s. Audits typically give farms time to prepare and double-check paperwork, although that’s not always the case.
Wixson recalled an incident in the small town of Brewster in Eastern Washington where about half the town’s population disappeared overnight following an audit.
“It’s a town of 1,500 people or so,” Wixson said. “The farm wound up letting go of 550 people because the farm was told the hiring forms were suspect. So families and people just left. The town disappeared. It was crazy.”
She said the type of enforcement she’s seen under the Trump administration has involved ICE officials checking the individual statuses of workers and detaining them that way.
“But there’s no bringing in buses and hauling people away yet,” she said.
Allen Rozema, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, said he’s been told to expect raids.
“We’ve heard from a number of folks who work on the legal side of labor and from other experts in labor that the raids will be coming,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
That, he said, is terrible news for farmers and workers.
“That kind of uncertainty does not lead to confidence in the industry from individual farms and folks who rely on seasonal labor from all manners of work in the agriculture sector,” Rozema said.
Mondragòn’s worst work day happened a few years ago when he was transporting about a dozen farmworkers. His van was motioned to the side of the road by ICE agents who were auditing a nearby farm.
By the time ICE left, he was the only person left in the van.
“They took everyone I had with me,” Mondragòn said.
Lately, he’s heard other stories of deportations. For instance, one of his friend’s nephews was deported, he said.
Speaking up as an illegal immigrant can be dangerous.
Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old undocumented Argentinian immigrant, was detained March 1 by ICE after speaking at a news conference in Mississippi where she asked Trump to protect her.
“I believe most people are worried about what could happen,” Mondragòn said. “There’s a lot more uncertainty.”
A local farmworker, who asked not to be named for fear of being targeted by ICE, said she came to the U.S. alone to find stable work and make a living. She was a preschool teacher in Mexico, but the pay was too low and opportunities were scarce. So she decided to come to the U.S.
Now she is married and has children who were born in the U.S. Through an interpreter, she said she is more fearful of being deported now that she has a family.
“People are more insecure and they don’t feel the stability that they used to to have, especially this year,” she said. “It’s bad what you see on the news and what society thinks of you. People don’t want us here. So we don’t want to make any noise … I don’t want to be separated from my family.”
A local Latino farmer, who asked not to be named, said getting detained is just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“One day I was doing some paperwork in my truck and this border officer on patrol comes and parks right next to me,” he said. “He just stared at me for a little bit and left … I wasn’t scared. I can’t keep that fear anymore. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
Others who work on farms and have nothing to go back to in their countries of origin are much more afraid, he said.
“That is not healthy,” he said. “That brings so much stress to families.”
So why do people stay here?
“If you get a job (in Mexico) it isn’t enough to start a life,” he said. “I tried to go back home in (the 1990s), but I noticed the schools were bad. Everything was very expensive for what you make and the corruption is terrible … Police would steal money from me. It never ends, the corruption. So even if you live there legally, it’s still worse.”
The turmoil felt by undocumented workers is something Madragón said he’s lived with. He laments breaking a promise he made years ago to his mother that he’d return to Mexico after two or three years.
Both his parents have since died.
“That is something I'll hold for the rest of my life,” he said. “I helped them as much as I could but I didn’t get to share my time with them … People would rather live in Mexico if they could have a life there.”
Reform is needed
Immigration reform is needed to solve the many problems for workers and farmers. When that will happen or what it will look like is anyone’s guess.
One resource farmers can use is the H-2A program, which allows them to bring in foreign workers temporarily.
The program requires, among other things, that farmers provide workers with housing, transportation and better pay. That places a greater burden on farmers.
Because of that burden, the program has not taken hold in Skagit County.
Eastern Washington farms use the H-2A program more regularly, Wixson said.
For instance, the farm in Brewster that lost its workers years ago had to start using the H-2A program to get workers again, Wixson said. She said that workforce is now largely Jamaican.
Youngquist said a better guest worker system would be a good place to start immigration reform.
“We’ve made the problem worse by not letting workers go back and forth across the border,” Youngquist said. “The H-2A program, only a few big growers can use that. They need to make it to be some type of work permit.”
Garritt Kuipers, owner of Beavermarsh Farms, said there needs to be an immigration process. He has nine workers, all immigrants, who work year-round.
“I believe that my guys are law-abiding citizens and I’m assuming that (ICE) would go after guys that aren’t law-abiding,” Kuipers said. “You can’t just let people come in … There’s a safety issue involved.”
Wixson said one thing employers are worried about is revising the hiring process to make it mandatory to check social security numbers to help determine legal status.
To hire a farmworker now, the worker must only present work authorization documents.
Rozema said his organization and others have been asking lawmakers for clarity on what the future holds so farmers can plan a bit better.
“So far, agriculture leaders have not gotten a clear response,” he said.