Ohio Farmers Blame Migrant Worker Shortage On Immigration Fears

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Ohio migrant farm workers pound stakes to support green pepper plants.(Photo: Debbie Holmes)
Ohio migrant farm workers pound stakes to support green pepper plants.(Photo: Debbie Holmes)

Ohio lawmakers are considering a tough immigration bill like the one in Arizona. The immigration crackdown has affected farmers in the southwest and the south who rely on migrant workers to harvest their crops. They report difficulty finding migrant workers. Now Ohio farmers are seeing the same thing.

In Sandusky County in Northwestern Ohio, on a hot, sunny afternoon, migrant workers drive stakes into the ground to support the pepper plants. Soon the workers will pick them by hand…row after row, acre after acre. 43 year old Orfelinda Lopez has traveled from her Texas home to work at this farm for 11 years. Her husband has worked here for 15 years. They are originally from Mexico. Lopez says the work is hard but she knows what to do. For the cucumber plants, soon to be gherkin pickles, it’s all about making sure to pick them when they’re small.

“Yea, one tries to pick number ones so you can get paid better, but you have to pick them all regardless of what size it’s on the plant.”

Baldemar Velasquez translates for Lopez. He’s the President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee or FLOC. The union represents about 3,000 Ohio migrant workers. Velasquez says his members in Ohio face increasing pressure. He says authorities are making it more difficult for migrant workers to stay.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen. There may be an immigration scare. And when that happens, when the border patrol gets out there and they raid a local establishment like they did these Mexican restaurants a couple of years ago, it sent a streak of fear among all the immigrant community.”

State Statistics validate those suspicions. According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the number of Ohio migrant workers dropped by 9 percent from 2010 to 2011. Sandusky and Ottawa counties also saw a drop of migrant workers.
Migrant workers stay in Ohio from April until early November. They make at least $7.85 an hour, but if they work for the piece rate they can earn up to $16 an hour.

21-year-old Victor Rodriquez worries about an immigration crackdown.

“Yea everybody is concerned about that. We’re all afraid of the immigration.”

Migrant worker Orfelinda Lopez says workers and farmers spread the word if they see an I.D. checkpoint.

“There is word among the community here among even the farmers who notify this particular farm that there is a checkpoint set up on Route 6 or someplace and the word spreads among the people not to go out in that direction so they don’t get stopped.”

Two years ago Lopez adds several farm workers were stopped and later deported. Their absence created a heavier workload for those who remained.

“They haven’t had any problems this year, but the year before last they did pick up some workers coming from the cabbage harvest and they were detained and deported.”

The drop in migrant workers is taking a toll on farmers.

Ottawa County’s Daryl Knipp, has been in the family farming business for 38 years. Until last year the crops grown on his farm included tomatoes and cucumbers, but Knipp says because of the crackdown on migrant workers, he decided to eliminate labor intensive produce like tomatoes and cucumbers.

“It seems like immigration is more in the forefront and it seems harder to find good workers who have the right credentials to be able work in this country. It’s become more of a challenge over the years and that’s one of the stressors I was trying to relieve,” says Knipp.

Knipp says it’s hard to know sometimes if a worker’s paperwork is accurate.

“Unfortunately we did have one situation where an employee that we had had for several years and who had had five children born in the United States, had a minor parking misdemeanor incident that turned into checking his paperwork. And he was ultimately taken away from his family,” explains Knipp.

The Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association reports some farmers are reducing the amount of crops they grow as they compete for the migrant workers who are available in Ohio.

FLOC has sued the border patrol for what it sees as aggressive tactics. Last month, 3 men were stopped in north Toledo for a supposed traffic violation when an agent asked a passenger in the vehicle for identification.

Farmer Daryl Knipp hopes lawmakers find a permanent solution soon.

“We need a very simple, basic program that lets us go out of the country to find these workers, bring them in, let them do their work and then let them go back home without a lot of strings attached to it,” says Knipp.

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