Americans don’t want these jobs, or can’t do them—so nearly a quarter of a million guest workers do them instead.
by John Washington | July 29, 2019
In the late 19th century, Polish and Volga German immigrants drained the muck out of this valley to reveal the residue of an ancient glacial lake—dirt so dark and fertile it resembles potting soil. Today, the farms that blanket the valley—known as the Black Dirt Region—brandish their organic or farm-to-table credentials and ship onion, radish, romaine, cilantro, as well as sod and poppy, to New York City restaurants and farmer’s markets, among other places. Most of the workers here, the ones bending over this black dirt with harvesting knives and hoes, now call the farms “los fields.”
I spent a recent late spring afternoon visiting various farms with Cristian Ávila, of the Workers Justice Center of New York, who drives around Hudson Valley fields evangelizing workers’ rights, work-shopping safety protocols, and giving and gaining respect to guest workers. He told me, for example, of occasionally hearing workers complain of allergies when they see rashes on their skin, and he has to tell them they’re actually suffering from pesticide poisoning. The men we met that day—they were all men—were polite, welcoming, and expressed few complaints—at least initially. After sitting and chatting for a while in their borderline-squalid flophouse trailers, details began to emerge: non-reimbursements for travel to the US-Mexico border, limited or no access to a vehicle to make purchases of food and other necessities, and intensely long hours, sometimes toiling over 90 hours a week.
These men are here as guest workers, part of a massive labor program that brings nearly a quarter-million agricultural guest workers—the majority from Mexico and Central America—to the United States to do the jobs Americans aren’t doing, and seem increasingly unwilling to do. These workers come to toil and sweat on American farms for, typically, a few months (though workers can be contracted for up to three years) before being ushered back to their country of origin. The H-2 guest worker system—H-2A visas for agricultural workers, H-2B visas for service sectors such as landscaping, hospitality, and fishing, which will bring an additional 96,000 workers into the country this year—puts temporary workers in jobs when employers need them most, while, at the same time, blocking imported workers from becoming part of the permanent social fabric of this country.
The set up squeezes guest workers nearly dry, and then disposes them back across the border. Farmworker Justice calls the program an “exploitative model of temporary indentured workers,” and some guest workers, especially if they have to pay high recruiter fees to connect with an employer, actually go home in debt. Contracts between employers and workers stipulate a variety of work expectations and conditions, but reports, including the Southern Poverty Law Center’s exposé, “Close to Slavery,” enumerate a litany of abuses: unpaid wages, dangerous—even deadly—working conditions, squalid living quarters, lack of medical benefits for on-the-job injuries, and being “held virtually captive by employers.”
Ávila and I wound along the valley’s picturesque roads—Celery Avenue, Pumpkin Swamp Road, Jessup Switch—that ran along and over the Wallkill River and through the vast plots of vegetables. As the sun was setting, we humped down a rutted dirt path through a cemetery of rusting, museum-worthy fire trucks—the owner is a collector—to a long, hastily built concrete structure that was temporary home to 25 men. Their knee-stained work pants and long-sleeve shirts were hung out to dry behind the trailer; the sunset was slashing shadows over the crop lines of onions; and a nonchalant woodchuck wobbled up and sniffed at a side door. A dozen men had circled around Ávila to chat about work conditions.
After a while we went inside the kitchen and I met Omar, a genial, soft-spoken Mexican man chopping summer squash while a pot of chicken bubbled on the stove. Omar also had a huge wok of nopales that were starting to soften next to the chicken. Like all the kitchens I saw that day in guest worker trailers, it was bare, not very clean, and young men (it was the end of the day, and they were freshly showered and smelling of cheap body wash) were constantly flitting in and out. Omar was wearing silver athletic shorts, a tan T-shirt, leather sandals worn to a shine, and an old Orioles baseball cap. He chewed gum very slowly. There was dirt under his fingernails.
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OMAR, 42 YEARS OLD
Okay, my name is Omar García García. I’m 42 years old. I’m from Michoacán, from a ranch named El Gigante, which is actually a small village. There are maybe 1,500 to 1,700 people who live there, and… well, that’s where I’m from. I have three kids. They are all in Mexico, in Michoacán. My oldest son is 18, he’s about to enter into university. My daughter is about to start high school, and my youngest is about start elementary school. They live with my wife and my mother-in-law.
I’m one of those people, you know, I’m never happier than when I’m in the fields. It’s the best place for me. I like cities, but just to visit. I’m not used to them. When I was a little boy I first started working in the fields with my grandfather. Back then, working with him, I would just help out in the rainy season, with the corn. Weeding, putting down fertilizer, all that. And then when I grew up I did a little more, I’d work with the neighbors. Clearing a parcel, helping with the harvests. Some people in El Gigante have land, and they pay for help, for workers. And we plant everything. Or almost everything. We don’t have kale or bok choy or tatsoi there. Or green peppers. There we grow the chile serrano and jalapeños. We don’t have arugula, either. But we have everything else, pretty much.
What I earn here in a day though, that’s what I can get in Mexico in a few weeks or more.
The first time I came as a guest worker, in 2005, it was really hard. Because you aren’t where you were born, where you’re used to living. And, you know, it’s hard because even if the work seems simple, if you haven’t done it before, it’s more complicated. The hard part was doing work that I thought was going to be easier, but you do it different here. Even if you’re used to it, with just a little difference, it makes it more complicated. Back in Michoacán we only had one type of green bean, and we harvested when it was still tender, but here, no, you have different kinds. You have to cut the big ones when they’re not too tender and not too hard, so the machine can husk them. In Mexico, we harvest only when the bean is really dry, when it’s about to open out of the pod, but it’s different here. And bunches of kale, you have to tie them up, so you have to cut them with the knife and then tie them up. I’d lived my whole life in the fields, but everything was different in the US.
The hardest part was just getting used to being so far from my home. Being outside of my country. I wasn’t used to it. I wanted to go back to Mexico. I really wanted to go back, and I asked myself, What am I doing here? But if I go, what do I go back to? Because it was expensive to come. I had this debt. I don’t remember how much, maybe 6,000 pesos. The bus to Monterrey, the hotel, the food. We had to wait in the hotel for a while, two days I think, while we were giving our information and doing the interview. I was thinking, I want to go back. But back to what? I had rent, had to pay for electricity, gas. I would have had to find work again, figure out how to get to work.
So I didn’t know what to do. I thought, Okay, I’m already here. I gotta keep going. If the other workers can do it, I can do it, because I have two hands like they have. I can use them, just like they can. I don’t think the others came and already knew everything. They had to learn, too. So if you learn, you move up, you learn to work like the others.
After that first season in Florida, I was able to fix up my bathroom back in Michoacán. That first trip, my earnings were mostly the experience. It was worth it, because it pushed me. I was able to save a little, not much. Everything you don’t have, you suffer a little bit for. We just had a small tub, and we bathed with a bowl. Our house had two windows and a door. The door was just a curtain. And the windows had plastic bags so the wind wouldn’t come in. But after that first year, I put a door in, put two windows in. Put a solar heater in. And ever since, I’m still fixing up the house. And I said to myself, Okay, I have two kids who are growing up, already in school, and then the youngest one. And I thought, Okay, I can’t stay here. If I can’t provide enough for my kids. Because I don’t want them to live like me. I couldn’t provide for my family, not by staying home.
My wife never said anything, but, I mean, when someone was selling a piece of land, and we didn’t have any money to buy any land, you notice. Or when my son says that he wants a car, or wants something smaller, anything, and working in the fields I couldn’t buy it for him… You have to give priority to food, shoes, clothes, education. Your family needs to eat. To go to the doctor. The basic things.
It’s not shameful to work in the fields. You’ll be able to eat. But it’s hard. So [in 2014, nine years after his first H-2A experience, in 2005] I told myself, told my wife, I’m going to go back to the US. This, 2019, is now my fourth year in New York, working for the same boss. I made about $5,000 that second trip.
Strawberry picking is the hardest. Even in Mexico you work all day, and you have to bend down all day, but not quite all day, because in Mexico it’s different. You stand up, you chat for a minute. You sit down for a minute. I don’t know, it’s calmer. But here, no. When they’re paying you by the hour, they’re paying for those hours. And they want you to work. They don’t want to see you standing. If the work is hunched over, they want you hunched over. If the work is standing up, they want you standing. If they want you kneeling, they want you kneeling and working. And they ask you, Why are you standing? I mean, if you just stand up for a bit to stretch or to drink water, it’s okay, but if you’re standing there for a bit—I mean it’s logical—they’re like, Hurry up. Because I’m paying you. And I understand. I’d do the same.
We usually work six days a week here. We work 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes more. It depends on what work there is. Sometimes we’re doing 14 or 16 hour days. And sometimes we work Sundays. They pay us by the hour when we’re packaging for the market. They pay us by the box for cilantro, parsley, beets. If you’re only working three hours or so, you make more if you’re working by the box. But the longer you work, the more tired you get, and you start to slow down. It doesn’t go down that much, but you can’t fill the same number of boxes at two or three in the afternoon—in the heat, when you’re tired—that you were filling at six in the morning. I’m making now about $500, $400, sometimes $300 a week. Later in the season maybe $700, $800, even $900 a week. And we work Sundays later in the season.
We keep track of our own hours. They give us little sheets that we mark down hours on, from Friday to Thursday. The week starts on Friday and it’s over on Thursday. And you mark down when you started, when you finished, your lunch. They pay us on Saturday. There’s not time to do anything else but work. Sometimes you’re only sleeping four or five hours a night. Right now we have a little more free time, because it’s early in the season. We’re getting off at five or six, and we don’t go in until seven tomorrow morning. So we’ll wake up at six, drink a little coffee, eat something, and then go to work.
But sometimes when we’re coming back at eight or even nine, there’s not really time to do anything. We eat some cookies maybe. A juice, and then fill up our lunchboxes with some crackers, a juice, a soda, whatever we have, for the next day.
In this house there are 25 people. We all know each other. We get along. We all chat. Nobody gets out of hand, nobody looks down at other people. We walk a little when we have downtime, or talk to our families. Or just sit around. There’s no TV, but we listen to music, or just talk. We play soccer sometimes, but we don’t always have enough energy. I talk to my family every day. With these phones, it’s easy. I talk to my wife for twenty or thirty minutes a day, with my kids, too. Or we send messages to each other.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t feel good here. I’m too far from my family. I’m too far from the place where I was born, where I grew up. I lived all my life there, and now I come here, I come because I want my kids to study. In Mexico, I wouldn’t be able to do that. It would even be hard to send my kids to high school. But I can do it working here. God willing, I’m going to send all three of my kids to college. My son, he’s not sure yet what he wants to study. Maybe industrial processing. I don’t know much about that field. But maybe he’ll study agricultural engineering. I know more about that. But there’s not much demand for that where we live. My son likes working in the fields as well. He’s like me, but in the end, I told him he needs to think hard about it, because it’s his future. I tell him, Look, I don’t know about all these things, but look around you, look around at what you can do. Look at what I have to do. If I had the chance, I’d think hard about another line of work.
I think the United States is really beautiful. It has so much. It has a lot that Mexico doesn’t have, but I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t want to move here. Not me. My rancho is my rancho, and I’ve thought a lot about it, and I tell my wife, I don’t come here because I want to. I don’t come here because I don’t want to be with you. I come to give you something better. Something better, something we can’t get there.
I’ll wake up tomorrow at six. I’ll drink a coffee, maybe a shake. The driver, or maybe the boss, will take us to los fields. I don’t know, maybe to pick radishes, or, who knows, we won’t know until tomorrow. We’ll probably be packing veggies for the Saturday market [it’s Thursday night when we’re speaking]. We’ll cut lettuce, romaine and Boston, red and green. We cut the hearts and put twelve in a box, or depends on what brand we’re working for, and then we cut the cilantro, also for the market. Depends on what box, but usually 24 bunches per box. Maybe we’ll finish packing for the market by noon, or maybe earlier, and then we’ll get together, and we’ll go to some other fields, for the radishes, or the kale. The radishes you pull out, seven or eight at a time, then wrap them with a band. It’s not too hard. The earth here is really soft. Dark and soft. So you don’t need to really tug too hard. What’s difficult is to be doing it for so long. You don’t get like crazy tired, but you get tired.
I don’t know why Americans don’t do this kind of work. I don’t understand why. Maybe it’s the pay, or the work itself. Maybe it’s cheap seeming. There are a lot of reasons. I don’t know which it is. Or maybe it’s because, how can I put it, we’re the people who accept this kind of work because we’re used to hard work. And maybe Americans try to find ways not to do this kind of work. Not this kind of hard work. But I don’t know what the exact reason is. There may be multiple reasons. There are a lot of Americans who, okay, they do work on the tractors, or weed a little, but they don’t harvest. A lot of them just give orders.
My interest is just to come to this country, do the work, and then leave it. That’s all. My work is what interests me. That’s all I do here. My family tells me they miss me. But then I think about coming home with nothing, without having food to eat… I like the US, I like it a lot. But this isn’t where my life is. All there is here for me is working and sleeping. In Mexico it’s different. You can have more free days, you can be with your family.