SCOTT SIMON, host:
On this Labor Day weekend, we're going take a look at the travels and travails of a particular group of laborers. Migrant farm workers on the East Coast will spend the holiday like most other days - picking tomatoes, beans, peaches and other crops. When the growing season ends in the North, those migrants will head south - often on Interstate 95 - in search of work.
As part of our series I-95: The Road Most Traveled, Joel Rose reports on the migrant's commute.
JOEL ROSE: Look closely at the traffic on Interstate 95 - between the tractor-trailers and vacationing families piled into minivans - and you might see them: migrant workers, following the growing season from state to state. Greg Schell is an attorney at the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Florida.
Mr. GREG SCHELL (Migrant Farmworker Justice Project): When the Florida harvest ends and the workers need to get to North Carolina, the fastest way there is to get on the interstate. Likewise, when they finish in the Carolinas and need to get to Pennsylvania or New Jersey, Interstate 95 or other interstates are the highway of choice.
ROSE: Schell estimates that more than 100,000 farm workers commute up and down the I-95 corridor every year. And for the undocumented workers who make up the majority of that labor pool, the journey can be harrowing. Just ask Ramiro, a migrant worker I met on a tomato farm in New Jersey.
RAMIRO: (Through translator) Last year, we almost had an accident. Thanks to God we didn't, but we came close.
ROSE: Ramiro was riding in a van with other undocumented workers on I-95 in Maryland when another car swerved into their lane. Ramiro's van wound up on the side of the road and the police came to investigate. Ramiro says he was afraid of being deported.
RAMIRO: (Through translator) We definitely were scared. It stays stuck in your mind.
ROSE: Ramiro doesn't want us to use his last name because he's afraid of attracting attention from immigration officials. But it's a risk migrant workers can't always avoid when traveling.
Mr. NELSON CARASQUILLO (General Coordinator, CATA): They just move and hope that they will not be detained, stopped or anything like that. So that's the risk that they're taking.
ROSE: Nelson Carasquillo is the general coordinator of CATA, a support group for agricultural workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He says migrant workers try to keep a low profile. They travel with friends and labor contractors in cars and unmarked vans. They generally avoid buses, for fear of running into immigration checkpoints.
Mr. CARASQUILLO: The 95 corridor was the traditional way of moving for them, has become kind of a trap for them.
ROSE: Migrant workers have been traveling up and down the East Coast since well before the days of Interstate 95. Farmers depend on cheap and flexible labor to pick fragile crops like tomatoes, peaches, blueberries and more. And the pickers' journey has always posed dangers.
In 1960, "CBS Reports" aired a documentary called "Harvest of Shame."
(Soundbite of documentary, "Harvest of Shame")
Mr. EDWARD MURROW (Reporter): At the intersection of U.S. Route 301 and State Highway 102, nine miles from Fayetteville, North Carolina, 21 migrants were killed - 17 male, three female, and a baby boy.
ROSE: Back then, migrant workers on the East Coast were mostly American citizens. Mark Miller is a professor at the University of Delaware. Miller says the migrant workforce has changed dramatically since he began studying it 30 years ago.
Professor MARK MILLER (University of Delaware): There still at that juncture was a prevalence of African-American migrant workers from Florida. Today, the composition is very, very different. There's been a Hispanization of the agriculture work force.
ROSE: Miller says African-Americans have largely moved on to jobs with better pay and working conditions.
Back on the New Jersey tomato farm, Ramiro says he too would like to settle down.
RAMIRO: (Through translator) I've been thinking about it. Work's going to be finishing up pretty soon. I would like to stay here, but I don't know what else to do.
ROSE: Without documentation, Ramiro says it's difficult to find work here in the off-season. So in October he'll probably head back down I-95 to Florida and take his chances.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.