Immigrant workers trapped in limbo

Editor’s note: This is the last in a four-part series about agriculture and immigration reform.
MIDDLEBURY — When I asked Honorio how he got to the United States, he responded with one word.
“Corriendo,” he said. Running.
Two and a half years ago, when most 17-year-olds in the United States were getting ready for the prom or searching for their first summer job, Honorio was trekking the Arizona desert alone, in search of a better life.
He hoped to reach Vermont, a place he had until recently never heard of in a country he had never been to, on a tip from an uncle that he could find work there.
Honorio, now 20, is one of hundreds of immigrant agricultural workers in Addison County, many of whom entered the country illegally. He, along with more than a hundred Mexican nationals living in Vermont, attended a mobile consulate hosted by the Mexican government this past Saturday in Middlebury. Like Honorio, the men at the event don’t have their names published to protect their identities.
At the event, Mexican nationals living in Vermont could get passports, government IDs and other services from the consulate.
Honorio has come to the mobile consulate to renew his passport. Having this enables him to wire money to relatives and to open a bank account.
Honorio’s story is not all that different from the estimated 700,000 immigrants that attempt to cross the 1,954-mile-long border between Mexico and the United States each year. Only about half are successful.
Honorio is from Veracruz, a city on the Gulf of Mexico, four hours east of Mexico City.
He paid a pollero $3,500 to smuggle him across the border. A pollero, which literally translates as “chicken herder,” is a trusted guide hired by immigrants to help them cross the border into the United States.
After crossing safely, Honorio paid an arranged driver another $1,000 to take him 2,500 miles to Vermont, where an uncle worked on a farm.
Honorio found work on a dairy farm in Addison County. He works nine hours a day, seven days a week. For his journey, he paid only $500 upfront, the rest he wired to the pollero once he started working.
Oscar, 29, also works on an Addison County dairy farm. He is from the state of Puebla, in the southern part of Mexico, and has worked in the United States a total six years over three trips.
The first time he returned to Mexico, he did so voluntarily. The second time, he was picked up by federal immigration officials while crossing the street in Maine, where he worked, and deported.
Oscar was flown to the Mexican city of Reynosa, just across the border with Texas, and given a bus ticket to Mexico City.
This time, Oscar has been in the U.S. for two years.
He said crossing the border each time is difficult.
“It’s very complicated and we suffered a lot,” Oscar said through a translator. “The first time, I had a two-day bus ride from Puebla to the border. At the border, I connected with someone I know, and crossed with 18 people.”
Oscar said he walked 15 hours when he crossed into Texas. He said the communications and logistics were complicated.
“I had to arrive at a Family Dollar store at a certain time,” Oscar said.
“The second time I came I walked through the desert for several days,” Oscar said. He paid 5 million pesos, or $5,000, for the help of a pollero. Friends from his village were working in Vermont, so he headed there.
Both Honorio and Oscar fit the bill of the majority of immigrants who cross the border into the United States.
According to a study by the University of Arizona’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration, 94 percent of immigrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border are men, 57 percent are in their 20s and 59 percent work in agriculture or construction.
Pépe, 48, was one of the older immigrants at the mobile consulate. He has worked in the United States a total of 14 years, but has not returned to Mexico in nine years. He said he did not want to talk about crossing the border because it was a bad experience.
“It is getting harder and harder,” he said though a translator.
Research supports Pépe’s claim — crossing illegally from Mexico into the United States is getting harder, and more dangerous. A report by the National Foundation for American Policy found that immigrant deaths at the border increased 27 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Increased security, in the form of fences and Border Patrol agents, has forced immigrants to cross at the most remote sections of the border.
On a national scale, the number of Mexicans living illegally in the United States has decreased in recent years, reversing a four-decade trend. In 2011, 6.1 million Mexicans lived illegally in the U.S., down from a high of almost 7 million in 2007, The New York Times reported, citing a report by the Pew Hispanic Center that 58 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States were Mexican.
Pépe said deportation is a constant worry.
“We are afraid because here you’re not allowed to drive now,” he said. “It’s different than when I used to live in Florida because when they caught you, they just gave you a ticket and released you. Here, they deport you.”
United States immigration and law enforcement officials deported more than 400,000 people in 2012, an all-time high.
Caroline Beer, a professor at the University of Vermont who focuses on Latin American politics, said that pouring more resources into strengthening border security has had the perverse effect of increasing illegal immigration.
“In the past, migrants would come during peak harvest season, follow the crops up north, and then return home,” Beer said. “Now, they don’t want to risk their lives again by crossing the border, so they look for full-time work in places like Vermont.”
Beer said she does not believe that increased border security deters immigrants.
“These people are risking their lives to try and come here; they’re willing to risk being deported,” Beer said.
Though each is unsure about how long they will stay, Honorio, Oscar and Pépe made the arduous journey to the United States for the same reason — economic opportunity.
“In Mexico, it is tough. Salaries and wages are low,” Oscar said. “There is opportunity in the U.S.”
“We came to look for a better life because there are no good jobs in Mexico,” Pépe said. “I want to give a better life to my children.”
The minimum wage in Mexico is $5.10 per day, though many agricultural workers earn well below that. Beer said that these workers can earn five to 10 times that working on a farm in the United States.
“I send all my wages back home,” Oscar said. “With the money I’ve made I’ve built a house for my parents, wife and young daughter to live in.”
Oscar said he plans to stay in the United Statesas long as it is necessary to provide financial security to his family.
He also has a brother who he thinks is working on a farm in Massachusetts. They communicate by telephone and on Facebook. Oscar also uses Skype to communicate with family in Mexico.
Oscar said he is not worried about being deported again, because he is prepared for the consequences of whatever may happen.
“Around here, it’s not nearly the problem it is in other places,” he said.
Pépe came to the United States with his brothers. He has a wife and three children. His 20-year-old daughter attends college in Mexico. Another daughter, who is 14, lives in the United States.
Pépe said he is not sure how long he will stay here.
“Maybe two or three more years, we’re not sure,” he said.
A MEXICAN NATIONAL living in Addison County holds his brand new passport Saturday after working with Mexican consulate officials who came from Boston to Middlebury Saturday.
At a meeting with Rep. Peter Welch on Nov. 4, Addison County dairy farmers said that their immigrant workers were not looking for U.S. citizenship, but rather for legal protection in the form of a long-term visa.
The three men on Saturday agreed that obtaining citizenship is not a priority.
“If it is possible, I would like to become a resident,” Honorio said. “Mostly I want to go home to see my family.”
Oscar said he does not want to become a citizen of the United States.
“What would be best is some sort of work visa that would allow me to go home and visit my family,” he said. “I don’t need to become a permanent resident.”
Oscar said that this sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues.
“We’d be happy to go home and be able to visit our families,” Oscar said. “The way things are now, it’s way too hard to get any sort of visa.”
Pépe said U.S. citizenship is not a desire.
“We’ll be happy with a working permit, and being able to go back to Mexico,” he said.
See the other articles in this series:
Consulate provides services to Mexican nationals here
Farmers need labor, seek immigration reform
‘Blue Card’ would aid foreign dairy workers

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