Crowd of 75 farmers and lawmakers talk immigration policy

By STEPHANIE MURRAY

@StephMurr_Jour

Published: 04-09-2017 6:45 PM

HADLEY — In western Massachusetts, much of the labor that keeps local farms afloat is done by immigrant workers. But many who make up that labor force are living in fear of U.S. immigration policy, farm owners say, especially after the election of President Donald Trump.

Local farmers, lawmakers and other community members addressed these concerns in a meeting Saturday afternoon at Plainville Farm in Hadley. The meeting drew some 75 people and featured about half a dozen speakers, as well as the opportunity to send postcards to state and federal officials.

“This is a lifeline issue for many of us,” said Michael Docter of Winter Moon Farm in Hadley. “I can’t run my farm without my workers … They’re the bedrock of my farm and operation.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 72 percent of farmworkers in the country are foreign-born and 46 percent are undocumented. As the political climate becomes increasingly tense, Docter said, many immigrant workers are living in fear, afraid to be pulled over by police and taken away from their families.

But Neftali Duran, of Sunderland, addressed the crowd with a message of hope. Duran is from Oaxaca, Mexico, and is a food justice advocate with a background in restaurant work.

“I am here to put a face to all of the labor you guys speak of,” Duran said, adding that immigrant labor is important to many facets of the food industry, including farms, restaurants and supermarkets.

“I see this as a great opportunity for us to work together,” Duran said. “I believe in a thing called Massachusetts values, regardless of political affiliation.”

Duran said he believes “Massachusetts values” will be put to the test, and said he hopes residents will support initiatives like the Safe Communities Act co-sponsored by state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, who also spoke at the meeting Saturday.

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Immigrants do not just wake up one day and decide to leave their homes, Duran added. Instead, they leave out of desperation, he said. Duran left Mexico in 1997, he said, shortly after the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed in 1994.

The impact of agriculture

Those who attended the meeting were asked to anonymously write their gross yearly sales on a card. Organizers tallied the cards and determined of the farm owners in the room, their businesses contribute $86.83 million a year to the local economy. Eric Stocker, of the Belchertown-based Squash Inc., said he was astonished by the number.

Gary Gemme, of Harvest Farm of Whately, said he stopped using the H2A visa program, which provides temporary work visas for seasonal agricultural work in the United States, because the system is bogged down in bureaucracy, fines — even lawsuits. He started hiring local workers, which eliminated the bureaucratic “baloney.” In its place came larger, more serious worries, he said.

“I don’t just worry about farms and lawsuits, I worry about my own existence. If ICE shows up in the middle of the season, I lose not only my labor source but my farm,” Gemme said. “It would bring me to my knees.”

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said he believes sharing personal stories will drive the conversation around immigration reform in a stronger way than data and numbers can.

“If you guys don’t thrive, we all pay the price,” McGovern told the farm owners. “I’ve got your back. I hear you, I’m going to amplify your voices and we are going to fight like hell.”

McGovern said politicians come and go, and the political climate is constantly changing. He said he can’t imagine the political climate getting any worse, so it “can only get better.” The number of people who attended the meeting was a statement in itself, McGovern said.

Wally Czajkowski, of Plainville Farm, suggested lawmakers create a way for current experienced workers to obtain legal work authorization. He encouraged attendees to mail postcards and call their elected officials to make their voices heard.

Czajkowski said local and state police should focus on fighting crime rather than acting as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and added that keeping young immigrants out of the United States in the years ahead will cripple farms that rely on their labor.

“Why spend millions of dollars building a wall to keep out the people we need?” Czajkowski asked.

Stephanie Murray can be reached at stephaniemur@umass.edu.

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