February 6, 2017


Law enforcement related to migrant laborers limited in rural areas


MARIETTA — Migrant labor and crop prosperity go hand in hand in rural communities where seasonal work is taxing throughout the warm months.

Southeastern Ohio is no exception.

“We don’t know what is going to happen this season but last year we had about 300 migrant workers in eastern Ohio,” said Oscar Ramirez, a bilingual representative of Ohio Means Jobs’ Migrant Seasonal Farmworker Program. “Most farmers hire locally but at peak times when they need more hands, migrant work is needed.”

Ramirez visited Marietta on Friday to speak with local farmers about labor concerns and also shared the responsibilities of employers looking to hire outside the U.S. as local agriculture businesses prepare for the growing season.

With 431,492 farmland acres making up 35 percent of Washington, Noble, Morgan and Monroe counties’ total 1,217,362 acreage, the challenge to man agricultural business falls to employers each year as they keep up with seasonal demand of their crops and livestock.

“The big issue employers run into is trying to work within the U.S. Department of Labor’s system,” said Stacy Cozart, president of the Ohio chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The stalled process oftentimes leaves employers part of the way through their season before their application gets through. Sometimes they have to turn to alternative means and employ undocumented workers just to keep up throughout their busiest season.”

Ramirez informed farmers Friday of their responsibility to check the immigration and visa status of their employees for authenticity.

“When we recruit people we always need an identification card and Social Security number,” he said. “But we don’t have the authority to check that number to see if it’s real so that’s up to the farmer to check their papers. Right now the H-2A and H-2B programs are how employers can work through immigration to employ migrant workers legally.”

The H-2A and H-2B programs allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural and non-agricultural jobs.

But when undocumented workers are discovered in the area, local law enforcement only has so much leeway to step in.

In November a former employee of a local Marietta farm was arrested for aggravated menacing and later told law enforcement that he was working in the United States illegally. He also told officials that a man arrested in September for inducing panic at Las Trancas was also undocumented.

“We usually refer cases like that to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at that stage,” said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks. “We don’t have a state statute giving us authority to investigate the employ of illegal aliens.”

Mincks said the November arrest of Rolando Garcia Perez, 43, led to Perez’s deportation on Dec. 12 by ICE. However, Felipe Gonzalez Lopez, who allegedly threatened an employee with a gun at Las Trancas, remains in custody in the Washington County Jail.

Mincks said farms in the Beverly-Waterford area and near Stanleyville have had a history of enlisting the aid of undocumented workers during their busiest seasons but that most, like Witten Farm in Beverly, try to work through the federal H-2A program.

“I wouldn’t say illegal employment is rampant but there are certainly incidents of this occurring,” said Mincks.

If an undocumented worker is discovered performing a crime, Marietta Police Capt. Aaron Nedeff said the individual is arrested and ICE is notified.

“But outside of committing a crime, we’re not going to arrest you and question your immigration status,” said Nedeff.

Mincks said the majority of arrests of non-U.S. citizens involve alcohol or traffic offenses.

“If ICE wants us to hold a person who has committed a crime we do so,” he said. “But they don’t always deport (undocumented workers) unless they have committed a serious crime.”

He said when his office handles the processing of a non-U.S. citizen, the most prevalent challenge is communication.

“We could certainly use more interpreters but we do have some volunteers that help and at the jail they use Google translate to communicate,” he said.

Cozart emphasized that most migrant workers, whether legally documented or not, are trying to make a decent wage to support themselves and their families.

“Some of these workers have been coming back for years because they really rely upon the work to support their family,” she said. “America is a land of immigrants and the more we can welcome diversity and open the way for learned trades to work full-time, all year round, the better off we are. These people are hard workers that just want to make a living and if they could do it legally they would.”

Media inquiries from Ohio are directed through the Michigan office. Public Affairs Officer Khalid Walls, of the Michigan ICE office, did not return calls for comment this week.