Life as an undocumented farm worker


This week in Washington, immigrant groups are protesting the Obama administration’s deportation of immigrants — 2 million, they say, in five years. They want it to stop until Congress finishes passing immigration reform. Here is what it’s like to be an undocumented farm worker, as told (using a pseudonym) by a migrant worker in Florida.

It has been nearly 20 years since I left Mexico and came to Florida — two decades of hard work without getting ahead that much. That’s 20 years in orchards and vegetable fields here, or picking cucumbers in Ohio, apples in Michigan and Washington, tomatoes in Tennessee, melons in Georgia — always in fear of deportation. I’ve spent 20 years dreaming about becoming legal. For me, that’s the American Dream: to be a United States citizen.

We couldn’t make a go of it in Mexico in 1995, my wife and I; there wasn’t enough work so we came here. There really is no way to do it legally — to get a visa that lets you work and stay, unless you have family here or know someone important. I didn’t have any experience in the fields. Farm work was what I could get and so a farm worker is what I became, and that is what I am today. I’m good at it, but it’s not what I want my children to do.

We’d been here a couple of years before we sent for our two kids. It was scary. We paid someone to bring them across the border but for a long time, about a month but it felt like an eternity — we didn’t hear anything. We weren’t sure where they were or even if they were alive. Eventually we got a call that they were safe, but we had to drive to get them at the border. They were about 3 and 5 years old then. Today they are 24 and 22, also working in agriculture, with families of their own. Our other three kids were born here and are citizens.

Farm work is hard. We start in the orchards early, when the humidity is high and the trees are wet. We’re carrying bags and they get heavy, up to 90 pounds of oranges when full, as we climb up and down from tree to tree, reaching in and picking the fruit, placing it in the bag and moving on. We’re soaked all day with moisture and sweat. There aren’t many breaks for water or a bathroom, although some places are better than others. We work when it’s hot and cold; if we can’t work, we don’t get paid.

I travel — always taking my family. In recent years, we have driven 3,000 miles to Washington state. We get to the area where we hear they need apple pickers and look for a contractor. Sometimes we can afford a motel; or we sleep in the car until we find housing. We are cautious; if you attract attention someone could call a cop or the immigration guys. One slip-up and you’re caught in the system that takes you away from your family forever. Half of the people I work with are in the same situation.

When you’re undocumented, people take advantage. We show up for work as part of a crew of anywhere from 9 or 10 to 30 men and women. I’m lucky; I have a car so when I’m in a job with abusive supervisors, I leave. I have seen and heard of supervisors who take advantage of workers who don’t have other options.

This is particularly true for indigenous workers who don’t speak much Spanish or have a car; they stay because of a lack of options. Sometimes they cheat us out of what we are owed, or pay less than the contract promises. Even if we could report it, we would have to hang around instead of hitting the highway to the next job.

We never go back to Mexico. My father died and my wife’s father, but we didn’t attend the funerals. We would have had to leave the kids behind and if we couldn’t get back in, what would happen?

I know people who have been deported, even some married to legal residents or citizens. They tell us Congress might pass immigration reform. The most important thing is to stop breaking up families. I’ve tried to tell my children that the police are their friends, but they know that the police also can destroy our family. They’ve seen it happen with their friends. If we could get legal status or citizenship, none of that would be a problem.

Farm work is the work I have. I like the idea that we feed other families. Where I come from, the family is the center of everything. I hope a new law will protect our families in the United States.

Jaime Diaz is a pseudonym for a farm worker who lives in the area.

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