'They're Scared': Immigration Fears Exacerbate Migrant Farmworker Shortage : The Salt Some growers say that President Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric has made a chronic worker shortage even worse.
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'They're Scared': Immigration Fears Exacerbate Migrant Farmworker Shortage

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'They're Scared': Immigration Fears Exacerbate Migrant Farmworker Shortage

'They're Scared': Immigration Fears Exacerbate Migrant Farmworker Shortage

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Farmers all over this country have a problem. They don't have enough workers to harvest their crops. It's estimated anywhere from half to three quarters of farm workers are in the U.S. illegally. Some growers say President Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric has made a chronic worker shortage even worse. NPR's Melissa Block has this report from northern Michigan.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: We've come to an apple orchard on Old Mission Peninsula, a finger of land poking into Lake Michigan. Workers from Johnson Farms climb wooden ladders high up into the trees with picking bags strapped across their bodies. Their fingers are a blur, nimbly plucking the fruit and filling those bushel bags about 50 pounds per load.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: These pickers are all Mexican. One has brought music in his hip pocket to make the time fly by.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Whistling).

BLOCK: According to the farm owners, the workers either came from Mexico on temporary visas, or they have paperwork showing they are in the U.S. legally. Owner Dean Johnson says it's just about impossible to find Americans to do this work.

DEAN JOHNSON: We've tried. We really have. Sometimes people come out on a day like today, and they'll pick one box. And then they're gone.

HEATHERLYN JOHNSON REAMER: It's hard work. It is hard work out here.

BLOCK: This is Dean's daughter, Heatherlyn Johnson Reamer, who manages the farm.

REAMER: What happens if we didn't have the migrant labor here picking apples, picking tomatoes, picking lettuce, picking everything? There wouldn't be food. It's just as simple as that.

BLOCK: What's behind the farm worker shortage - for one, a stronger economy that's driving many seasonal workers into better-paying, year-round work like construction. Also, the children of migrants are upwardly mobile. They're finding better opportunities and aren't following their parents into farm labor. Add to that, Dean Johnson says, Trump's crackdown on immigration.

JOHNSON: As we all know, there's a pretty good number of workers in this country illegally. And so they're scared. Those people don't want to travel anymore. They're in Florida and Texas, you know? They won't come up from Mexico.

BLOCK: Johnson says even though Trump's aggressive stance on immigration hurts him as a grower, he did vote for him last November.

JOHNSON: I was in favor of change. There's other things involved besides just the immigration issues.

BLOCK: Dean's daughter, Heatherlyn, is not a Trump supporter, and Trump's talk about building the border wall leaves her cold.

REAMER: When we heard that, I said, you can't say things like that. I said, there are so many migrant workers in this country. You just wonder, do you really see who your population is?

BLOCK: Because of the farm labor shortage, many farms are relying more heavily on workers from Mexico brought in through the H-2A temporary visa program. The workers earn 12.75 an hour at minimum plus transportation and housing. Farmers complain that the program is cumbersome - lots of red tape with multiple federal agencies involved, and it's expensive. It can cost about $2,000 in fees for each worker they bring in.

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: Across the bay, we stop in to visit a migrant who works on a different farm. We meet him at home in the trailer he shares with his two daughters and his wife, Leticia, who's busy making tortillas for dinner.

Marcelino and Leticia are both undocumented. They asked that we not use their last name to protect their family. Their daughters are U.S. citizens born in Michigan. Marcelino tells me he crossed illegally from Mexico in 1989 when he was just 14.

MARCELINO: My home is in a rural, rural place.

BLOCK: He came to the U.S. to work in the fields and has lived here ever since. In the winter, the family lives in Florida, where Marcelino and his wife pick oranges. Come March, they head north to Michigan for field work - cherries, grapes and apples. And the girls switch schools back and forth.

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: Marcelino has been making this trip for 28 years now. In the past, migrant families would drive north in a long caravan.

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: He says, "we'd all come up together in seven vehicles..."

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: "...Including a pickup truck with a camper attached, all filled with workers."

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: Have you seen a change in how many people are coming up from Florida?

MARCELINO: A lot.

BLOCK: A lot.

MARCELINO: Nobody wants to come.

BLOCK: They're too afraid, Marcelino says. And he's fearful, too.

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: What are folks back home telling you? Obviously you came. You said you're afraid, but you made the trip, yeah? What are your friends back home in Florida saying?

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: They're telling you you're crazy to come.

MARCELINO: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: He knows it's risky, but he needs the work. And he says he can't let fear rule his life.

What would you say to people who would say, look; we are a nation of laws; undocumented workers are taking the jobs away from Americans?

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: So you're saying, "come work with us."

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: "If you like the work and if you produce as much as we do, then here is your job."

MARCELINO: Yep.

BLOCK: Marcelino dreams of a better life for his daughters, who have a boost up as American citizens. One wants to be a police officer, the other a surgeon. He warns them, pay attention in school. Study hard, or else you could end up like us...

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: ...Coming home from the fields all dirty and stinky.

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: "I want them to be better than us," he says. "That's why I'm pushing them."

MARCELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.

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