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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

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.


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