What happens when more than half of migrant workers are undocumented

Oct 9, 2013

This week, I’m posting segments from my documentary, "Voices from the Fields," a story of migrant workers in Michigan. It airs today on Stateside.

Migrant work is one of the only jobs available to undocumented workers in the U.S.

An estimated 50 to 70 percent of farm workers in the U.S. are undocumented, and this causes problems not only for the workers, but for employers too.

I visited migrant workers in their labor camps after a day in the fields. I visited four camps in southwest Michigan. The majority of the workers either speak Spanish only, or that’s their primary language. And a lot of them aren’t afraid to admit they are undocumented.

When I visited the first camp, one migrant worker gladly invited us into his tiny concrete hut. He’s from the south of Mexico. He says he and the other workers from the camp came to the U.S. illegally and says he and the other workers at the camp don’t have legal status in the U.S.

At the second camp on the trip, one worker says very few of the Mexican workers at the camp have their papers.

At the next trailer over, another worker from Mexico says he doesn’t have a work visa.

The fear of deportation

One of the biggest fears these workers have is the threat of deportation.

While I visited these migrant camps in southwest Michigan this summer, Alejanrdo Collazo was working at a dairy farm in the thumb of Michigan.

He was the only one with legal status among the dozen people who milked cows. He says his crew was getting shorted hours on their paychecks and weren’t getting paid on time.

He says his crew leader told him the farm also had a crew of American workers that worked in another location. The Americans were paid more than Collazo’s Hispanic crew and didn’t have to milk as many cows. He says the undocumented workers were afraid to complain to the owner, because he has threatened to deport workers before.

“If the workers say anything or complain, the owner says he will call immigration or the police because they don’t have papers,” Collazo says.

The owner of the farm could not be reached for comment.

But this undocumented status comes with other problems too.

Pedro Alvarez is a U.S. citizen and migrant farm worker from Texas.

He’s worked in Michigan for a few summers and has worked with crews of mostly Mexicans. He says many of the workers from Mexico come from places with few jobs and opportunities, so it is easier for an employer to take advantage of them.

“These people, they don’t know how to read. They don’t know how to write. They don’t know there’s a law that after so many hours, they get a break. They don’t know anything about that. They’re just out here from Mexico.  But these people come from nothing. There’s no work. There’s no food. There’s nothing to live off of. So they basically come out here and they have a job and they feel like they are in heaven. Even if they are treated like slaves,” Alvarez says.

But Craig Anderson with the Michigan Farm Bureau says he doesn’t think employers treat workers differently based on their legal status.

“I take a look at payroll records of many employers across the state and I don’t find any of the indicators that would suggest that one is being paid more or less than another group of people,” Anderson says.

The problem for employers

But the issue of legal status isn’t just a problem for undocumented workers. It’s also a big concern for employers. Sometimes it is hard for an employer to even know if their workers documentation is real or fake.

Anderson says an employer can’t turn someone down because their documents look sketchy.

“From an employer’s perspective, if you come to me for a job and you come to me with a document and to me looks to be reasonably valid, I must take it. But as an employer, can’t look at a document even though I have some suspicions that it might not be accurate. I can’t just simply say, ‘no, I think your illegal’. That’s discrimination,” Anderson says.

Mark Johnson is the winemaker at Chateau Chantal in Traverse City.

“And it used to be that people would get papers and you would kind of question whether they were real or not,” Johnson says.

“It was like a student ID; they fake their driver’s license so that they can go to the bar. It was the same type of thing. And some were better and some were worse and you usually had an idea but you weren’t required by law to be an expert in this sort of thing.”

But that’s changing, because over the last 10 years there’s been a spike in audits by the by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to the White House, since 2009 ICE has audited nearly 9,000 employers suspected of hiring illegal labor.

That’s more than the total amount of audits during the entire eight years of the Bush administration.

Johnson says that’s troublesome when employers are hiring migrant labor.

“And today we have the feeling that we better have someone on staff who really knows what a Texas driver’s license looks like exactly, or what a Florida driver’s license looks like, or even an ID card from Mexico. We need to know that stuff. It’s become a lot tougher,” Johnson says.

Johnson says there is added pressure because fines have increased as well. The U.S. Department of Justice imposed an increase in fines as much as 50% back in 2008.

And the higher scrutiny and penalties have forced some employers to make changes. Over at Chateau Chantal, they’ve made a move to hire fewer people to work in their vineyards.

Move toward mechanization to avoid hiring undocumented labor

Instead of hand labor, Chateau Chantal invested around $134,000 in machinery to do the work people used to do.

One machine pulls leaves off the vines, another positions the vines, and another one harvests the grapes.

Johnson says the grape harvester came with a $70,000 price tag.

It was a big upfront investment, but it can do the work 40 times faster than humans at equal or better quality. And it eliminates any chances for getting fined by the government for hiring undocumented labor.

Tomorrow, we will explore another way farmers can avoid hiring undocumented labor. It's called the guest worker program. We'll explore how the program works, and it's implications to the immigration debate happening in Washington D.C.