Silence in the Fields: Increased immigration enforcement affects agricultural harvest

Migrant farmworkers are integral to northern Michigan’s agriculture economy. Archived photo from 2013 by Gary Howe

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

In northern Michigan’s vineyards and orchards, ablaze with fall colors, migrant farmworkers are known to sing corrido ballads and folk songs as they pick grapes and apples from sunrise to sundown. But for a time during this year’s autumn harvest, their voices fell silent.

Targeted roadside arrests by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and workplace visits by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increased starting in late September. Word spread quickly throughout the community of Latino farmworkers, their families, and allies via phone calls, text messages, and social media.

Some skipped town immediately, leaving their foremen and farm owners in a quandary at the height of the harvest. One winemaker on Old Mission Peninsula, north of Traverse City, lost 18 workers over the course of a weekend after ICE dropped a surprise I-9 employment verification audit on a Friday afternoon. (This vineyard has chosen to remain anonymous in this article.)

When news spread that ICE was active in the region, even those with H2A guestworker visas and legal papers to work in the United States grew paranoid and worked silently in the fields, not sure if they or their friends would be picked up and deported the next day.

The guys here are all scared, whether they are legal or domestic,” says Heatherlyn Johnson Reamer, whose family farm is on Old Mission. “We had terrible unrest when ICE was out there. I got a text at five in the morning telling me they were on the peninsula, and that if I had any domestic workers, they may run and hide.”

Johnson Farm, which recruits help through the guestworker visa program, was not raided. Nevertheless, Johnson Reamer’s family felt the trickledown effect—the winemaker who had received the Friday afternoon audit and was suddenly short-staffed called Johnson Farm a couple of days later and asked if the Johnsons could provide help with labor. They could not. The Johnsons have 26,000 new honeycrisp apple trees, and their 19 workers were busy picking more than 4,000 boxes of apples each day.

They come in the fall for harvest and just want to work,” Johnson Reamer says. “They all want the same things we want—a safe place to live and to work, and to put food on the plates of their children.”

One farmworker who has settled in Leelanau County and lived here for nearly 30 years said that he has never seen so many workers leave immediately after a raid or an audit. The action was particularly challenging for farm owners, because it came during the fall harvest season.

It was a disaster for the farmer and for the families,” says the Leelanau farmworker, a native of Mexico who prefers not to be quoted by name. “Some people stay here all year, some leave in mid-November after the work is done. This year, they left early.

Now is the time when you need the most people.”

Some families left for Grand Rapids, others went further south, to spend the winter in Florida.

I’ve heard that Florida is more calm than here,” the farmworker says.


Losing Next Year’s Workers?

In Leelanau County, another winemaker received an I-9 audit back in late July. He worries that some of his workers will not return next year. Following the employment verification audit, ICE informed him that it had found seven “suspect IDs.”

Ironically, says the winemaker, that list included his cousin’s husband, who he called “a white guy from Chicago.”

The Leelanau winemaker did not immediately lose any workers, but he says: “I imagine I’ll lose the ability to hire them in the future.

Most of them are in Texas and follow the crops. They’ve been my seven best workers out of 25. It won’t be easy to find seven others. We’ll have to re-recruit and re-train.”

Winemakers and farmers throughout Northern Michigan share identical stories of trying and failing, year after year, to recruit locals to do the work. Instead of “taking jobs away from Americans”—as the populist mantra goes—the Latino migrant community “does the hard work that white high school kids don’t want to do,” says the Leelanau winemaker

Working on the grapevines is very technical,” he explains. “It’s a pain in the ass. Farming is getting harder.

Our country won’t go around without these workers. Nobody else wants to do the work.”


Roadside Stakeouts

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol broadly interprets its coverage area as including anywhere within 100 miles of an international border and within an international body of water, including all five Great Lakes. Thus, Border Patrol operates freely throughout Michigan.

Border Patrol agents have reportedly staked out one particular stretch of road in Leelanau County intermittently throughout the fall. Their undercover vehicle—typically a black or gray sport utility vehicle (SUV) or Ford F-150 truck—waits in the early morning hours near a trailer park where many Latino farmworkers live. On September 18, the agents arrested an immigrant who works in landscaping on his way to a job site. About half an hour later, they arrested his brother when he came to retrieve the vehicle. Both were taken to Chippewa County Jail in Sault Ste. Marie, where the U.S. government rents space to hold—and eventually to deport—immigrants. On the drive to the Upper Peninsula, the brothers overheard the Border Patrol agents discussing, in English, how they planned to continue staking out the same neighborhood.

The landscaper’s wife told the Glen Arbor Sun that she tried to communicate with her husband before the detained brothers were taken away. She approached the undercover Border Patrol agents and asked them to speak with their immigration lawyer, whom she had on the phone. She described the agents as wearing buttoned-down, short-sleeve shirts and jeans; one had a tattoo on his right arm. They allegedly refused to speak with her lawyer. It was not until 7 or 8 p.m. that evening that the detained landscaper was able to call home and speak with his wife and their 19-month-old daughter. He was not able to talk long, as phone cards within the jail cost $3 per minute. His legal case, and that of his brother, are still pending.

Deputies from the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office played no role in assisting Border Patrol, but their department was made aware of the arrests as they happened. At 7:53 a.m. on September 18, the county’s daily crime log listed an “assist other department” event. According to Matt Ansorge, county director of emergency management, a Leelanau deputy encountered a Border Patrol agent and was made aware that “they would be in the county doing an investigation the rest of the day.”

Dark vehicles suspected of belonging to Border Patrol were seen numerous times in that neighborhood in subsequent days. On October 9, they pulled over three minors on their way to a local public school; all three had legal papers and were released.


ICE and Border Patrol’s Aggressive Federal Mandate

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE and Border Patrol, has been given a mandate to increase immigrant arrests, both at the United States-Mexico border but also throughout the U.S. interior. According to The New York Times, Border Patrol apprehended a record 16,658 people traveling in families in September, bringing the total to 107,212 for the 2018 fiscal year, which ended September 30; a total of 400,000 people were apprehended by border agents during the 2018 fiscal year. (The previous high for people traveling in families was 77,857 during the 2016 fiscal year, nearly 30,000 less.)

Data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a project of Syracuse University, reveals that Border Patrol arrests in the agency’s Detroit Sector—which includes operations conducted out of Sault Ste. Marie—have spiked in 2018. In January alone, 193 arrests were made, compared to 43 arrests in January 2017. The number of arrests this year far exceeds the tally from 2017 and from the latter years of the Obama administration. (Figures are not yet available for August or September 2017, or any month beyond April 2018.)

Meanwhile, ICE has more than doubled its employment verification audits this year, compared to the 2017 fiscal year. Since January, more than 5,200 businesses nationwide have been served with I-9 audits in a two-phase investigation, according to a July 24 press release from the federal agency. The tally of audits far eclipses the immigration enforcement high-point of the Obama administration when more than 3,000 inspections were conducted in both fiscal years 2012 and 2013.


More Funding, Greater Mandate in 2019?

ICE is lobbying for an extra $1 billion in funding to meet the aggressive deportation goals mandated, or inspired, by the Trump administration. According to The Washington Post, the agency urged Congress in August to include the extra funds in a stopgap spending measure. Instead, congressional leaders from both political parties agreed in September to postpone the fight over Trump’s plan for funding and building a border wall until after the November 6 elections. Without the extra money, officials warned that they may be forced to suspend arrests and deportations.

Democrats, who might seize control of the House of Representatives on November 6 according to polls including, have been sharply critical of ICE’s spending and are unlikely to provide the votes needed to approve such a sizable increase, reported the Post. While it controls the government purse strings, Congress may also pass non-binding resolutions regarding its policy preferences, according to Alan Bersin, a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection under Obama who recently addressed the International Affairs Forum in Traverse City and the League of Women Voters in Leelanau County about immigration.

The Department of Homeland Security faced criticism after it notified congressional subcommittees late this summer that it would move roughly $200 million to ICE from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other agencies—just as the southeastern portion of the United States was bracing for Hurricane Florence to make landfall—reported the Post.


Bergman vs. Morgan: Where do they stand on immigration?

Incumbent Jack Bergman, a Republican who represents Michigan’s First Congressional District, has refused to criticize Trump for his heated rhetoric against immigrants. Bergman has stopped short of supporting full-scale comprehensive immigration reform—which could create a path to citizenship for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for years. (Many of Northern Michigan’s migrant farmworker population are undocumented and have worked here for more than a decade.)

Bergman did vote in favor of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s ill-fated “Amnesty Bill” in June that would have created a path to citizenship for children who qualified under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as well as 300,000 adult sons and daughters of certain guestworkers who arrived while younger than 16 and have lived in the United States for 10 years.

When asked about immigration policy at an October 10 debate in Petoskey, Bergman focused on the H2A and H2B guestworker visas, which allow farmers to pay the government for the right to employ and house them. However, the guestworker program can be prohibitively expensive for some small farmers, and the federal program does not easily allow the workers to migrate within the United States and to follow the crops, which farmworker families have done for decades.

My number one policy goal [when I joined Congress] was to help my colleagues understand what immigration really means,” Bergman said on October 10. “Immigration means that good people, like our ancestors who came to this country, need to be able to get in and get an answer, whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Democrat Matt Morgan, who is challenging Bergman in the November 6 election, said he favors comprehensive immigration reform.

I have a hard time seeing why this isn’t a bi-partisan issue today. Immigration reform is something we’ve been talking about for more than two decades in this country,” Morgan said at the October 10 debate. “Today, we don’t have a coherent process for which people can come into the country, either because they want to work, they want a better life for their family, or because they’re seeking asylum.”

“I believe addressing the issue of comprehensive immigration reform is key. We need to extend the opportunity for those children who were brought into America to become citizens. We need to create a pathway so that people who are here undocumented have the opportunity to seek citizenship.

“These are fundamental issues that America was founded on, and it’s time we make it work again.”