March 23, 2017


ICE arrests New York farmworkers, alarming industry and advocates  


Crackdown on laborers will bring 'a world of hurt' to farms and food supply, according to the Farm Bureau


By Rosa Goldensohn


Trump administration arrests of immigrant laborers—including a farmworker activist—in western New York in recent days have alarmed the state's agriculture industry.

Immigration authorities seized five apple pickers in Albion on Tuesday. The men had no criminal records and were not the intended targets of an enforcement action, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed. But when found lacking legal status, they were charged with immigration violations and detained "pending removal proceedings," according to a spokesman for ICE.

The five were carpooling to work on an apple farm, according to the Worker Justice Center in Rochester. New York is the second-highest producer of apples in the country, according to the New York Farm Bureau, an industry trade group. Immigrants, many without legal status, form the heart of the labor force.

"We strive to do difficult work; work nights ... corralling cows, harvesting food in the day, in rain," said José Coyote Pérez, a dairy farmworker and activist. "It gives sustenance to our families and we are happy."

Pérez, 41, has been detained for the past month at ICE's Buffalo detention facility. His top charge is an immigration violation, ICE confirmed.

"I'm afraid because there are grave consequences for me," he told Crain's in a phone interview.

ICE's actions have struck fear in farm owners as well as workers.

"If we don't have the ability to have workers on our farms, farms can't survive," said Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman. Farmers are "having such a difficult time" finding workers, he said, "because people are scared, they're nervous to be out in the open seeking employment." Some workers are afraid to leave the farms on which they live and work—even to go to a store, he said.

A March analysis by financial-services provider Farm Credit East of the potential impact of enhanced immigration enforcement in New York found that 1,080 farms in the state are highly vulnerable, meaning they could go out of business or shrink significantly. If all undocumented workers were deported, the state's agricultural production would likely be reduced by $1.37 billion, or 24%. More than 21,000 agricultural workers would lose their jobs, including U.S. citizens as well as immigrants, and more than 23,000 nonfarm jobs could be cut as well. The economic ripple effect would decrease nonfarm activity by $7.2 billion, according to the report, and would require New York to import more food.

The Farm Bureau said ICE's aggressive enforcement exacerbates an existing labor shortage, and dismissed the notion that immigrants are stealing jobs from American citizens.

"There are open jobs on farms if people want to do them," Ammerman said.

President Donald Trump has played up the dangers of "criminal aliens," but his Jan. 25 executive order on immigration enforcement and subsequent Department of Homeland Security memos expanded his priority-deportation list far beyond serious offenders, and could encompass all undocumented immigrants who have entered the country without inspection. That priority list is so broad as to render it an enforcement free-for-all, experts say.

Pérez is a member of the Workers' Center of Central New York and has advocated for undocumented immigrants to be eligible for driver's licenses and the state's forthcoming $15 minimum wage. He said he does not know if he was targeted for his political activities. 

But in the arrests of three members of Migrant Justice, a Vermont sister organization to Pérez's group, and that of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, Daniela Vargas, after giving a speech at a rally, advocates see a pattern of retaliation. A federal judge said in court Monday that ICE immigration raids in Austin, Texas, were a reaction to that city's "sanctuary" policy, which limits local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

"We are very concerned about the reports we've heard about ICE targeting people based on their involvement in political or worker organizing and the chilling effect that could have on First Amendment rights," said Jordan Wells, staff attorney of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"The detentions like those of José Coyote Pérez, Daniela Vargas, the migrant activists in Vermont and other cases we are hearing about appear to be directly connected to their activism," said union leader Hector Figueroa, president of SEIU 32BJ.

Asked why Pérez was targeted, an ICE spokesman said the agency "is focused on identifying, arresting and removing public-safety threats, such as criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation's immigration laws." Pérez and the apple pickers arrested this week fall into the final category.

Employers fear retaliation from immigration authorities as well. Soon after one upstate farmer was featured in a newspaper story on immigration reform, ICE agents showed up at his farm with the article and conducted a raid, according to Ammerman.

If arrests continue to thin the workforce, farmers will switch from labor-intensive crops such as cabbage, of which New York is a top producer, to mechanized crops, such as corn and soybeans, that can be planted and harvested with machinery, the Farm Bureau predicted. Such a shift would bring "a world of hurt" to farms and domestic food supply, according to Ammerman. Some farmers are already planning to cut trees and skip cabbage this year.

But Pérez said he and his co-workers have "the will to work the land."

"Agriculture is life," he said.