Antonio Valeriano, a 49-year-old Mexican immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, who has been working on farms in Dutchess County since he came to the U.S. 15 years ago, admitted to knowing very little about immigration reform due to the isolation that pervades his daily life.
Valeriano is short with weather-beaten skin from working in the sun six days a week. In the summertime, he starts his days at 6 a.m. and finishes working at 10 p.m.
“We’re not asking for much, only what’s fair,” he said, and explained that the scarce contact farm workers have with the outside literally keeps them “living in another world.”
Another worker who preferred to remain anonymous emphasized that the lack of information on immigration reform causes “us to be afraid of everything.”
Valeriano is divorced with two children, ages 20 and 21. He lives together with 18 other laborers in a 6-room house provided to them by the farm’s owner. He has been at this farm in Red Hook – a little more than two hours north of the city – for three years. They are currently harvesting peas.
The long workday only amounts to a little more than $500 a week. For many, this salary is extremely low because most workers have to send money to their families.
“We don’t pay rent or utilities, but we have to buy food, calling cards, and toiletries,” said Valeriano, who sends money to his oldest son, a psychology student who had to return to Mexico when it became impossible for him to continue with higher education in the United States.
“It was very painful for me when my son left,” Valeriano remembered. He is facing the same dilemma with his younger son, who graduated from high school two years ago. Although he wants to study graphic design, he is working in the fields because he hasn’t been able to attend college.
In the small dining room of the house, a gathering place for the workers who return home clearly exhausted, there is a television that is seemingly the only source of distraction they share; they never miss the news broadcast or the Mexican soap operas. A poster by Vicente Fernández, the group’s favorite artist, hangs on one of the walls.
“We don’t get mixed up in problems. We came here to work, and the only thing we ask for is that they let us go home to our country, even if it’s once a year,” said Agustín, Valeriano’s cousin, who also lives in the house.
Around 11 p.m., the person in charge of cooking tonight’s meal is in the kitchen making enchiladas, and the aroma begins to permeate the room. It feels as if they are trying to go back to their beloved homeland, if only for a moment.
“We take turns cooking and the menu changes. What we can’t forget are tortillas,” explained Valeriano, who goes to buy groceries with his co-workers once a week in a bus their boss provides them.
Immigration reform isn’t a topic that interests all the workers to the same degree. Some of Valeriano’s co-workers, who are Guatemalan, simply want to earn a living.
“It doesn’t matter to many of them because they don’t trust anyone. Others are afraid of retaliation from their bosses,” said Valeriano, who decided a few month ago to participate more actively to get informed and then explain the importance of the reform to his co-workers. “We live in a sad reality.”
Just like the federal laws, according to provisions of the New York State Labor Relations Act, farm workers are excluded from employment protections.
“The story of this group is a reflection of what other farm workers go through,” said Emma Kreyche, organizing and advocacy coordinator at the Worker Justice Center of New York, which was founded in November 2011.
Kreyche specified that farm workers “don’t have the right to get paid for overtime, health insurance, and can’t file a class-action lawsuit” because they aren’t protected by state law.
The lack of information surrounding immigration reform makes farm workers easily fall prey to fraud.
“We explain to them how the system works and that everything is at an early stage,” she said.
Milan Bhatt, co-executive director at the Worker Justice Center, estimates that there are between 80,000 and 100,000 farm workers in New York State, the majority being from Mexico and Central America.
Bhatt stressed that within immigration reform, under the section covering farm workers, it is important that the law provides penalties that would protect them from retaliation.
“Without this type of measure, many of them could be left out [of the reform] for fear of their bosses,” said Bhatt.
In upstate New York, besides harvesting fruits and vegetables in the fields, farm laborers also work in plant nurseries, milk dairies, horse stables and raising chickens.