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Farms fear immigration arrests will scare off legal migrant workers

Jim Bittner says the workers on his Niagara County apple farm have a term for it: Driving while brown.

He chuckles sarcastically when he says it. But for Bittner and other upstate farmers, the new immigration environment, both real and imagined, is hurting one of their most important resources – migrant workers who plant and harvest their crops each year.

[Gallery: Legal migrant workers at Bittner-Singer Orchards]

Bittner's employees are from Mexico, Jamaica and Poland and are here legally; yet they now worry about something as simple as going to the store.

"We have guys who have someone else cash their paycheck for them," said Bittner, owner of Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton.

The stories of fear and anxiety are well-known among farmers, and some of them are angry that their workers – many of them longtime valued employees – are increasingly concerned about arrest or questioning by law enforcement, even though they have broken no laws.

Dairy farmer Pat McCormick says his workers, four men from Mexico, liked to visit the local stores and restaurants but suddenly stopped earlier this year after a handful of local arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants – including 32 working at local construction projects – garnered headlines.

"They didn't want to leave the farm," said McCormick, owner of a 600-cow dairy farm in Java, "and I didn't like that. We want them to feel like part of our family. We don't want them to feel like slaves."

Among farmers, there's an appreciation for the 1 million to 3 million migrant workers who travel north across the border to help with planting and harvests. It's a relationship of respect, trust and mutual need.

While largely invisible to most of the nation, migrant workers are a huge presence in some rural communities. They are also seen as honest and reliable, and perhaps most important, willing to do the kind of intense outdoor physical labor most Americans shy away from.

Migrant farmhands trim trees in the peach orchard at Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"They know the respect I have for the work they do," said Maureen Torrey, owner of a multi-generation vegetable farm in Genesee County.

Torrey says her workers also know she would have their backs if they got in trouble.

During much of the year, Torrey employs 200 migrant workers, most of them Mexicans with work visas. She also relies on heavy equipment operators from South Africa.

Right now, they're planting onions and cabbage and, come late summer and fall, they'll be back to harvest the results. In short, they are essential to Torrey Farms' success.

Like a lot of local farmers, Torrey relies on the H-2A visa program, a government-run guest worker program known for its lack of flexibility and extensive paperwork.

The need for reforms to the program and the importance of foreign workers to agriculture were among the messages she delivered to President Trump last month. Torrey was one of a small group of farmers invited to meet with Trump as part of a White House roundtable discussion.

Not surprisingly, farm labor shortages, including the impact of recent immigration crackdowns, dominated much of the meeting, she said.

"He's very aware of the shortage of people to work on farms," Torrey said of the president.

The concern about farm labor is nothing new and the agriculture lobby is one of the oldest and loudest voices in support of immigration reform.

For more than a decade, farmers have been asking for more flexibility in the government's guest worker programs. They also want a pathway to a longer-lasting legal status for seasonal workers who return to the same farm year in and year out.

Farm advocates say the concern about labor is universal among New York's farmers.

"They're wondering, 'Who's going to milk my cows?' " said Jeff Williams, director of public policy at the New York Farm Bureau.

Williams said the concern has heightened with the election of Trump and his pledge of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and the ripple effect it could have.

The fear is that more and more migrant laborers who could work here legally will elect to stay home instead of risking arrest or harassment by coming to the U.S., adding to an already worsening labor shortage.

The concern, Williams says, stems in part from what farmers are already experiencing – a nervous and anxious workforce.

"On the first day of the Trump administration, we got calls from farmers saying, 'My workers are afraid to leave the farm,' " he said. "People are scared to show their face."

To understand the level of worry, you have to understand how much the agriculture industry here and across the country depends on foreign labor.

Bittner will tell you quite bluntly that the work they do is work most local people don't want to do. It's outdoors. It's hard physical labor. And it tends to be seasonal.

Right now, he has 20 workers; but come harvest time, he'll add another 25 in order to get his apples off the trees in time. He says the workers tend to be people from rural areas or people with a farm background.

"I have workers who are worried," he said. "There's also a lot of anxiety among the farmers out there. No one seems to know what's going to happen with the current administration."

As a dairy farmer, McCormick doesn't have access to the H-2A program – which is designed for crop farmers – so his options are even more limited. When his efforts at finding local people proved futile, he contracted with an outside employment agency that specializes in migrant labor.

"We couldn't find domestic workers to do the job they're doing," he says of the four workers he hired. "They are reliable. They want to work. They do what I ask them to do. They're good with the animals. And they're good people."

McCormick said the large majority of migrant workers come here with no expectation or desire to settle here, and many eventually stop coming back each year, choosing instead to work year-round at home.

"They don't want to become citizens," he said. "They just want to work."

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