Workers at Dean P. Brightly Farms in Hamlin faced a row of enormous wooden bins nearly spilling over with cabbages that recently had been harvested from the fields. Using large knives, they cut off the dirty leaves and threw the heads onto a conveyor that dropped them into a shipping box.
This work took place on May 1 — the day activists across the country had called for work and shopping boycotts to show how essential immigrantsare to the U.S. economy. At Brightly Farms, only half of the staff reported to work, with some workers deciding to participate in the boycott, said Javier Solis, who has worked at the farm for nearly a decade.
Solis, a Mexican native who has a U.S. work permit, said he chose to come to work because he worried that the boycott would send the wrong message.
“What they are doing is good,” he said in Spanish. “But it’s going to make it more difficult for us workers. … We need better leadership.”
Rural Migrant Ministry, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is heeding that call for leadership and has for thepast decade been highlighting the plight of those who work the fields. The Rev. Richard Witt, executive director, said the statewide interfaith organization had designated May as Farmworker Solidarity month as part of its Justice for Farmworkers campaign.
A June 2 event at St. Mark Episcopal Church in Penn Yan was slated to raise funds for Rural Migrant Ministry as well as Catholic Hispanic Migrant Ministry of Yates and Ontario counties, according to Xochitl Palacios, coordinator of the Catholic ministry. Palacios said the two ministry groups share the goal of improving immigrants’ lives and upholding their dignity.
Rev. Witt noted that this has been a difficult year for immigrants. U.S. businesses, he said, “want them (immigrants) to come and work and be out of sight.”
The fear of deportation prevents many farmworkers from getting involved in their communities and is not the message that farmworkers throughout the state — including the Diocese of Rochester’s 12-county area — should be receiving, Rev. Witt added.
“That’s not a way to build community, a way to affirm those helping to feed us,” he said.
But it is why — in addition to asking people of faith to mark the month with fasts, prayer vigils and youth-group activities — Rural Migrant Ministry is spearheading a postcard campaign to demand better working conditions for farmworkers, said Luis Torres, the organization’s Western New York director.
Rural Migrant Ministry,which receives some funding from the Rochester Diocese, is asking supporters to send postcards to state legislators who sit on labor committees. The campaign urges legislators to give farmworkers the same rights as those required for the state’s other workers: a day of rest, overtime pay and the right to unionize. Torres added that his organization is participating in Farmworker Advocacy Day in Albany on Tuesday, June 6, when farmworker advocates will ask New York state senators to support the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.
“We are encouraging people in this area who are not aware of the issues to learn more and get in touch with their legislators,” Torres said.
Rev. Witt said he agrees with Catholic leaders who have called for comprehensive and just immigration reform. National and statewide Catholic initiatives have focused on opposition to the House of Representatives’ immigration reform bill, known as H.R. 4437. This legislation would subject undocumented workers to potential prison sentences and would target people — including church workers — who assist undocumented workers. On Good Friday, the bishops of New York state, which is home to about 1.8 million noncitizens, issued a statement opposing criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants and those who help them, and calling for legislation that would provide a means for them to become legal residents — or even citizens — of the United States.
“It doesn’t do anybody any good if you have (people) here to work if you don’t provide basic protections to honor their humanity,” said the Rev. Witt. “Part of the problem with this debate is it centers around the cost of workers as cheap labor rather than the humanity of the people involved. We as church have to keep reminding ourselves we need to be … an ally of standing for the equality and dignity of our brothers and sisters.”
Ami Kader, interim director of the Albion-based farmworker advocacy group Independent Farmworker Center– known as CITA, an acronym of its name in Spanish — said too many people are uninformed about the effects U.S. trade policies have on Third World countries. Kader added that these effects are what causes so many immigrants to cross the border in the first place.
“If they could find jobs there, they wouldn’t come here,” Kader said. “They just want what everybody else wants, to feed their families, have their kids get an education.”
Perhaps instead of spending millions on a proposed border wall, U.S. officials could invest in the Mexican economy, concurred Sister Jane Schur, vice president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Rochester regional community.
The issue is complex, but at minimum people need to treat immigrants with respect as fellow human beings, said Sister Schur — who with her order and the New York region Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to which the order belongs — has focused efforts on a Justice for Immigrants campaign. The regional campaign is part of the national LCWR’s 50th anniversary celebration.
“We have to know who’s in this country,” said Sister Schur. “But we need these workers. There are jobs for them (American citizens) won’t fill.” She added that the United States should allow larger numbers of immigrants to enter the country legally until it can address issues that drive people to leave their home countries.
Solis said his native land also needs to work with U.S. officials on solutions that would help workers in Mexico earn decent wages.
“If the government of Mexico would help us, we wouldn’t have to come here,” added Solis. “You don’t see doctors and teachers coming over. Just those who don’t have the means to survive.”
Oscar, a Byron-area farmworker who asked that his last name be withheld, said he knew nothing about agricultural work before leaving Mexico City to find work in this country. But as an artisan doing piecework in a factory, he earned so little for each pewter piece he created that he had barely enough to live day to day and support his wife and son, he said.
So when a relative told how much he could earn by crossing the board, he took the risk. “Coyotes,” who charge Mexicans for transportation across the U.S. border, told him about work opportunities, all of them agricultural. Now, he said, he works 10 to 12 hour days planting and working the fields.
“I wanted to do something with my life,” Oscar said. “But I had to take whatever work I could find.”
Oscar said he had planned on staying only temporarily in the United States. But when his wife subsequently needed two operations without any medical insurance, he stayed to earn enough to pay for her care in Mexico.
He hopes more people will empathize with workers like him because he said it is impossible to sit around a table eating food picked by farmworkers and think you understand what it’s like to live their lives.
“We contribute to the development of this nation,” he added. “The only thing we want is to be able to come out of the shadows where we now find ourselves. To have the freedom to go wherever we want and not fear being detained by the police or immigration officials.”
Contains reporting by Rob Cullivan/Catholic Courier