March 3, 2013

Illegal farmworkers see chance at American Dream

Congress seriously discusses legalizing up to 12 million people

By JOHN LANTIGUA/The Palm Beach Post

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.

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A farmworker is dropped off in a parking lot after a day of work in Immokalee, Fla. The state’s largest agricultural trade group estimates that 75 percent of its workers are undocumented.

Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post/MCT

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Mateo Sebastian, an undocumented Guatemalan tomato picker, would visit home if he became a legal citizen.

Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post/MCT

"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."

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