If it weren't for immigration changes, this college grad would still be in the fields

Oct 11, 2013

This week I’m bringing you segments from my documentary, Voices from the Fields," a story of migrant workers in Michigan.

The Senate passed an immigration bill this summer that allowed for a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented farm workers in the United States.

Some say if those people get legal status, they’ll have a chance to find better work. That’s exactly what happened to Gerardo Zamora. He would still be in the fields if it wasn’t for a little known immigration bill passed recently.

It’s called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. It gives a 2 year work permit to undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children.

Zamora graduated at the top of his class in high school and was able to study graphic design at Western Michigan University on a generous scholarship. It was a gamble. He was undocumented. So even if he did graduate from college, he might not be able to find work because he doesn’t have papers.

But he knew lawmakers were working on immigration legislation for kids like him who were brought to the US as children, so he attended Western anyway.

He graduated in May of 2012, and lucky for Zamora, a month later, DACA was signed into law. Zamora was able to apply for a work permit through the program.

Immigration changes a way out of the fields

For Zamora, this was a way out of the fields. Growing up, he and his family picked blueberries and strawberries in the summer and trimmed apple trees in the winter.

Zamora’s family crossed the Mexican border to start a new life in the United States when he was 3 years old.

“We came over here illegally. Like 100 percent illegally,” Zamora says.

Crossing the border was worth it

But the risk was worth it, coming from a town with no opportunity.

“I come from a state called Guanajuato in Mexico and it was a very poor area,” Zamora says. “But when we lived there it was super, super poor. It was just like a really bad place to live. Hardly anyone finished school.”

But Zamora did finish high school and college. When he graduated from Western, he had interviews at 5 graphic design firms and was offered jobs at three of them.

No papers, no work

But Zamora eventually had to tell them, he couldn’t work in the US legally.

“The HR person told me, she’s like I’m just going to tell you the company’s really in love with your work and they are really considering giving you this job and it was an awesome job and I would have loved to have it and that’s when I had to tell her, I’m still waiting on a work permit. And the whole atmosphere in the room just completely changed. It was not like she was hating me. It was just like she realized like, man there’s not much I can do for you,” Zamora says.

Zamora knew the process of getting a work permit could take months. In the meantime, he tried doing freelance work, but that eventually petered out. The only option left for him to make any money was to go back to the fields.

Back in the fields after graduation

When I met him back in March, almost a year after he graduated from college, he was climbing and trimming apple trees with his Dad in below freezing temperatures.

“ After a while of carrying those trimmers around and just cutting thick branches, your arms and your back start hurting, regular physical labor problems start coming up and then a lot of times with branches will come back and smack you in the face. It feels like a whip is just slamming your face and it’s just horrible, I hate it,” Zamora says.

Migrant work one of the only jobs for undocumented immigrants

So here’s a kid who graduated among the top of his class in high school, graduated from a competitive program in college and had multiple employers wanting to hire him, but without documentation or work authorization. He was stuck.

He says doing seasonal agriculture work is one of the very few options for undocumented immigrants to be able to make money in this country.

“Well, completely contrary to the myth, they can’t go out and take your job like people are so scared of. They end up doing the work that nobody wants, the work that nobody would want,” Zamora says.

But by the end of March, Zamora finally received his work permit.  He now works at a graphic design company in St. Joseph that was one of the first to interview him after he graduated.

After more than 20 years in this country, his parents are still undocumented. Zamora says his parents often tell him how they came to America so he could have a better life. They pushed him to pursue his dreams, and Zamora says his Mom and Dad tell him that all that they sacrificed and fought for has finally paid off.