SODUS — After watching federal immigration officers raid a local farm Sept. 28, Irma, a migrant worker, decided to take a risk.
Calling the constant fear of police raids and deportation “unbearable,” Irma — who asked that her last name not be used — decided to participate in an Oct. 12 rally at Village Park to support her fellow migrant workers.
“It’s cruel,” Irma said of migrants having to stay in their homes like prisoners, venturing outside only to do laundry or buy groceries. “We walk around with so much caution, trying to stay hidden.”
A Sodus police car and a vehicle one activist identified as an unmarked border-patrol vehicle drove by during the rally. On both occasions, Irma hid behind the sign she was carrying, which read Solo pido: Dejame trabajar (“All I ask: Please let me work”).
Irma was among the nearly 50 people who came out Oct. 12 to demand an end to the immigration raids they say have increased in recent years. The rally, organized by the Rochester Alliance for Immigrant Rights, was part of a national effort to raise awareness about the plight of migrant workers, said alliance member Roberto Resto. Rallies also took place in 30 cities around the country on that day, he added, because Oct. 12 is known as D√≠a de la Raza — “Indigenous Peoples Day” — throughout the Americas in recognition of the native people who lived on the continents before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
In appreciation of the bountiful harvest area farmworkers produce, organizers also had asked for donations of produce to be spread along the sidewalk on Main Street. Demonstrators also lined up shoes attached to balloons, symbolizing those who have been detained and the children left behind, according to Sister Luci Romero, diocesan migrant minister for Wayne County. The balloons were released into the air at the end of the rally.
“This is a shameful situation that we are forced to live,” Sister Romero said. “We are farmers that love the earth and know how to work the land. Let them (federal officers) go and seek out terrorists and those that caused this economic downtown.”
The rally took on special significance because of the morning raid on Sept. 28, Resto said. Michael Gilhooly, communications director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s northeast region, confirmed that the raid was part of an effort to find fugitives under order of deportation to their native countries.
Irma said that at least one of the federal officers participating in the raid wore civilian clothing. Since he looked Mexican, she said she mistakenly tried to alert him that officers were searching the Sodus trailers occupied by a group of migrant workers. The plainclothes officer knocked on her door and asked if she spoke English, but she did not answer and the three families in her trailer were left alone, she added.
“The fear, the anxiety, the terror that he would break down my door,” Irma said describing the emotions that paralyzed them while they waited out the raid. “He left, but he kept on knocking (on other doors). Some workers opened their doors.”
ICE officials said 20 people were arrested during the raid.
Those arrests plus the situation at Church of the Epiphany — where an arrest near the church this summer discouraged workers from attending Mass — prompted local advocates to hold the rally in Sodus, Resto said. The Oct. 12 rally also was attended by members of a Church Watch group organized to stand guard at the church this summer so migrant workers could attend Mass without fear of arrest.
Church Watch member Esthel Levy said the arrests of workers and their separation from their children reminds her of the communist tactics she saw in her native Cuba. Such separation of parents and children also made her think of early Nazi activities, she added, as some in the crowd nodded their heads in agreement.
“Open your eyes,” she said. “Don’t let the history of the Jewish people repeat itself. This is how it starts.”
Elizabeth Henderson, who operates a farm in Arcadia, said she came to the rally to speak out in support of migrant workers, even though she and her partners work the farm themselves without migrant labor. She noted that farmers who do rely on migrant labor oftentimes are reluctant to participate in events supporting the workers because they fear possible repercussions.
“Most of the food you eat, which is inexpensive and plentiful, is brought to you by the hard work of farmworkers,” Henderson said, drawing applause.
The federal government must develop better trade agreements than the North American Free Trade Agreement, which she said has forced so many Mexican farmers to leave their own lands to work in the United States.
“We need trade that is fair so that people can stay in their own countries, on their own farms,” Henderson added.