An immigrant family's story: Florida's strawberry fields

By Veronica Cintron, Bay News 9
Last Updated: Thursday, June 08, 2017, 10:35 AM EDT

Reporter Veronica Cintron looks at the challenges immigrants and business owners face in the strawberry fields of Florida as part of the Spectrum News special "Immigration in America.”

WIMAUMA- 5:45 a.m. A Mexican family invites us into their mobile home to give us an up-close-and-personal look at their way of life. The mother and father are undocumented immigrants, so they ask that we don’t reveal their names.

The father of three makes a living harvesting crops. In the winter, he picks strawberries in Hillsborough county. When the season ends, he travels out of state with his family to pick other crops.

The father crossed the border illegally more than 10 years ago. He says he walked five days across the desert to get to the U.S. Their children are natural-born citizens.

All five family members sleep in the same small bedroom. They cram in the mobile home’s only bathroom to get ready in the morning. They share the unit with a relative to cover the $700 monthly rent. The father says he makes about $380 dollars a week.

He says his pursuit of the American dream comes at a price. “We live with fear,” he said. The family worries about deportation constantly. He says their fear has intensified with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

The mother and father say they’re preparing for the worst as a result of the illegal immigration crackdown under the Trump administration. “Police can stop you. The way laws are now, police are acting like immigration,” says the undocumented immigrant.

“We’re filling out a power of attorney letter to give temporary custody to someone in case something happens to us,” says the undocumented immigrant. The father adds, “It’s sad and stressful because we all come here to work. We don’t come here to do anything else.”

He told us he wouldn’t go back to Mexico voluntarily to apply for legal status mainly because of his children. “They’re learning here, the culture here and everything," he said. "Imagine me going back? I’d have to take my kids with me because I’m not going to leave them here. That’s when they would get confused. They’re used to life here."

The need to put food on the table outweighs the couple’s growing fear of deportation, so they keep going to work every day. However, many others are not taking that chance.

The Redlands Christian Migrant Association has seen first-hand how deportation fears are taking a toll on families. The Immokalee-based organization operates child care centers and charter schools for low-income migrant families in 20 Florida counties.

“It used to be safe for them. Now many times we do get the call that we’re not taking them today because we’re afraid that there’s rumors that ICE is in the area or that they’re checking papers somewhere. We see that very often now. There have been times where more than 50 kids have stayed home,” says RCMA’s Director of Farmworker Advocacy Lourdes Villanueva.

Villanueva leads seminars teaching parents who are in the country illegally about their rights and what to do if they’re ever detained. She says she’s doing more seminars now, sometimes twice a day. Participants watch a video, discuss possible scenarios and how to respond. They also receive a “know your rights” card to show law enforcement.

“We are just reminding them that they do have human rights. They do have the right to be silent,” Villanueva said.

Still, those efforts may not be calming migrant workers’ fears.

Farmers say the labor force has been on a steady decline. “Ninety-six to 100 people is the bare minimum that I need. I actually could use up to 100 people. I currently have 70 workers on my farm,” said Todd Jameson.

Jameson manages a 96-acre farm in Hillsborough County. “It is very expensive to do what we do. So fruit that does not get harvested, we don’t get paid for. Then, ultimately down the line, the consumer is the one who has to suffer because if we can’t supply our customers, where are they going buy their strawberries from?” he asks.

The fifth generation Floridian says offering higher wages in hopes to attract more workers hasn’t worked. So now, he’s thinking about trying a guest worker program. “It’s going to be very close whether I’m going to be able to afford it or not. But I don’t see it, myself, as having much of a choice at this point. We either have to get some new labor in or we go out of business,” Jameson said.

The H2A visa program is helping farmer Adam Young meet his quota. It allows employers to bring foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Young says he signed up because the labor shortage forced him to drop 40 acres of strawberries last season.

“I think some are scared," he said. " I’ve heard some are going back to Mexico. They’ve been here long enough and they’ve saved up enough money where they can go back to Mexico and live happily. The generation that is harvesting the produce is getting older. Some are retiring or moving into other job sectors."

Young says he spent more than $200,000 to hire workers through the H2A visa program. He told us the process is not only costly, but cumbersome. “I have to hire a lawyer to help work and navigate all the red tape. It’s all bureaucracy basically. It’s just too much,” he says.

To qualify for the H2A program, employers must prove there aren’t enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the work. Young says he hasn’t had much luck on that front. “There has been, for this, my first season, only one applicant for the job that was offered,” he says.

Jameson agrees. “If you’re an American, you’re more than welcome to fill out an application at my farm and work on the farm for me. We don’t have them coming. They’re not willing to do this type of work,” he says.

Farmers say one solution is immigration reform. “We do need to stabilize and secure the border. But at the same time, those folks that are on the other side of that fence -- we need them,” said Jameson.