IMMOKALEE, Fla. – Undocumented Guatemalan tomato picker Mateo Sebastian has not been home in five years, and that is the main reason he listens closely to any news about immigration reform.
“I have three grandchildren who I have never seen,” says Sebastian, 57, soiled and sweaty after a day working in the fields. “Oh, yes, everyone here is watching the news on the television. We all want to be here legally. We could visit home then and be able to return without trouble. I would be able to see my children and my grandchildren. I would like that very much.”
Immokalee, a major hub for farmworkers, probably has more residents per capita praying for a comprehensive immigration overhaul than any other town in Florida. After years of false starts, Congress is seriously discussing legislation that could legalize 11 million to 12 million undocumented people across the country. Members of both parties have said that illegal immigrants working in agriculture would probably be processed faster than others.
“That’s because no American wants to do this work,” says Sebastian, who sends money home to support his family. “It’s too hard and dirty for them.”
The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the largest agricultural trade group in the state, estimates that 75 percent of its workers are undocumented. Most of them earn poverty-level wages.
No bill exists yet, but the legislation taking shape in Washington would allow the undocumented to register with the government as probationary legal residents and eventually file for permanent legal residence.
Many Democrats in Congress and some Republicans believe those same people should eventually be permitted to become citizens, if they fulfill requirements, including passing criminal background checks, paying fines and back taxes and learning English. That would take at least eight years and maybe longer.
Other members of Congress, primarily conservative Republicans, are balking at citizenship for the illegal immigrants, and that could be a major hurdle.
Most of the farmworkers interviewed in Immokalee said they would want to eventually become citizens, but probationary legal status to start with would solve many of their current problems.
Carlos Perez, 39, also from Guatemala, explains that having to cross the border illegally is rife with dangers — the heat of the desert, bandits, unscrupulous smugglers — and he could use a green card to avoid that in the future. He says being able to come and go legally would also be much cheaper.
“When I first crossed into this country in 1992, I paid the coyote $250,” he says, using the Spanish slang for a people-smuggler. “The last time I went home and came back across was about a year ago, and it cost $3,200. Believe me, it would be much cheaper if I could just fly.”
Workers who agree to such large fees to cross the border usually end up having employers pay all or much of the smuggling cost. They then have to repay employers with labor, a process that resembles indentured servitude and leads to human rights abuses.
But there are many other daily concerns that would be solved by legalization, the workers say.
Jose Lopez, 27, of Guatemala, has been in the U.S. seven years. He and his wife, Paula, 26, like the other workers around them, follow the tomato harvest every year from Immokalee up through Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Delaware, before returning south to Immokalee again and beginning all over.
“And all the time we always are concerned with the fact that we are not here legally and one of us could be grabbed by the ‘migra’ and deported,” he says, using the Spanish slang for immigration agents. “We have a 1-year-old son born here. Our family would be divided. We have that concern all the time, and this reform would fix that.”
Jim Kean, a social worker at Guadalupe Social Services Center in Immokalee, says it is almost always the mothers who end up here alone with the children, who are usually American-born and automatically citizens. They then become dependent on food stamps and on organizations like his.
“I don’t think that’s the way the government intended immigration enforcement to work out,” he says.
Lopez also says becoming legal would give him and his wife the right to driver’s licenses. Some undocumented people drive anyway, but it is one of the most common ways they run afoul of the law, and some end up being deported.
“Having the licenses would make life much easier,” he said. “It would let us live normal lives.”
Fernando, 35, came to the U.S. from Mexico 15 years ago. His wife, Angela, 28, who is from Guatemala, has been here nine years. They have four children. They don’t give their last names.
“I have been away from my family in Guatemala all these years,” says Angela. “I have relatives who have been married, given birth, died and I can’t be there with them. And they haven’t seen my children. That is terrible for me.”
For Fernando, the issue is more about opportunity.
“I had a job in Naples installing windows and doors for a company for much more money,” he says. “They found out I didn’t have the work permit, the green card, and they got rid of me. I would like someday to do more than what I’m doing now.”
Any legislation legalizing farmworkers would almost certainly carry the requirement that they stay in field work for a certain number of years in order to stabilize the agricultural work force and then be able to move on to better work. Most say that is fine with them.
Maria Vega, another Catholic Church social worker, says a considerable number of farmworkers she has spoken to would be happy to come to the U.S. to work, but also be able to return home for part of the year when they aren’t in the fields. That means they might fit into the temporary agricultural guest-worker program that is expected to be part of the immigration overhaul.
She says many others want to stay in the U.S. full time and most of them talk about becoming citizens eventually if they can.
“Especially the ones who have children born here,” she says. “They want to stay and to have a say of what goes on with their children. They want to vote.”
Ramiro, 48, originally of Mexico, has been in the U.S. about 15 years and says he definitely wants to become a citizen.
“As a citizen you have all the benefits, including the ability to vote,” he says. “Also if you remain a resident and someday, for whatever reason, you have problems with law, the residence is something that can be taken away from you. Citizenship cannot be taken from you.”
But the farmworkers aren’t counting their chickens yet. Immigration reform has been discussed in Washington before, the last time in 2007. It fell apart back then, and workers are still cautious about getting their hopes up.
“Their lives have been so hard for so long they can’t imagine something good like this happening to them,” Kean says.