Farmers Seeking to Extend Number of Migrant Visas

Apr 6, 2017

While the current presidential administration has vocalized goals to deport all undocumented immigrants, some farmers are trying to bring more documented, migrants into the U.S. to work for them.

"We're to the point where we are really hurting for help," said Wayne Sirles, president of Rendleman Orchards in Alto Pass. "A lot of our farms will not be sustainable if we can't get help. A lot of us are going to have to decide whether we should quit farming."

Sirles recently visited Washington D.C. to persuade lawmakers to extend the number of specialized visas for migrant farm workers each year.

"We're in a situation here where we don't want our crops to be raised across borders," Sirles said. "We important a lot of fruit and vegetables obviously in the winter time, but there's a lot of farms that are going to move out or even some of them are going to go across borders to different places where they can get labor and that really and that really concerns me, especially from a point of food security and especially from a point of feeding our nation."

The program Sirles wants to expand is called H–2A. It's a program that allows foreign workers to temporarily live in the U.S. for up to three years.

The program provided visas for over 134,000 individuals last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Department of State. 123,000 of those people were from Mexico.

Those numbers are up from a total of over 89,000 people – 83,000 of which were from Mexico – admitted in 2014.

But according to Sirles, the farmers are still struggling to find workers.

"There's just literally not anybody that is willing to do that type of work," Sirles said.

In recent years, Sirles has noticed a decrease in young people seeking work are farmhands.

"A lot of the younger population coming on do not want to do that type of work," Sirles said, "or they have other types of jobs that provide a better income for them and more of an easier type of work style."

Most of the immigrant workers at Rendleman Orchards have worked there for many years, and Sirles is worried they may soon not be able to perform their work anymore.

"A lot of the help I have now are the first generation immigrants," Sirles said. " So that's where are concern is, and it's not just with me – it's happening all over the country."

Sirles believes the answer to work problems facing farmers is found by increasing the number of visas distributed by the H–2A program as well as making it easier to use for farmers.

"There's a lot of regulations to it," Sirles said. "There's a great expense just to bring up and take care of foreign workers up here... A lot of people cannot afford that. There is a lot of litigation that goes on with that, also. So it's not a very user friendly program; however, a lot of people use that because they have nowhere else to turn."

There's not only worry among the farmers for work. Sirles said many undocumented immigrants already in the area are scared just to go outside. A couple of farmers he recently met with have started escorting their employees to the grocery store.

"The workers do not feel safe to be out without having their help," Sirles said, "and that is pretty sad."

Rene Poitevin, coordinator of the Hispanic/Latino Resource Center at SIU, said a potential mass deportation of immigrants would rupture the infrastructure of not only the county but also the region's economy.

"I can tell you for a fact that the agriculture industry help would collapse," Poitevin said. "It cannot survive without the labor of undocumented workers."

"I can tell you for a fact that the agriculture industry help would collapse," Poitevin said. "It cannot survive without the labor of undocumented workers."

Poitevin says the anti–immigration argument has shifted focus in recent years as the U.S. economy becomes more dependent on undocumented labor.

"It used to be, 'Oh, yeah, these guys come here, and they drain our resources,'" Poitevin said.

Now, he says it's a battle for the American identity.

"Then, the shift is, 'It doesn't matter if they actually bring more money than they take. They are destroying our national identity,'" Poitevin said.

Poitevin says low–wage, undocumented immigrant labor is what keeps produce costs low in grocery stores. Without that labor, prices would skyrocket.

Though he doesn't believe a wall along the southern border would stop immigrants from illegally sneaking into the country, he believes President Donald Trump will deliver on his promises to build it.

"Trump, now he has cornered himself where he has to build a big chunk of something," Poitevin said. "Maybe it's not going to be the whole thing, but he has to spend a lot of money building something, so he can say he fulfilled his pledge."

But a campaign to protect immigrants has been brought forth in the Illinois Senate.

On Monday, Democratic Senate President John Cullerton introduced the Trust Act.

If it were to pass, Illinois law enforcement agents would be unable to participate in immigration actions without a warrant. It would also extend protections to public schools.