Wayne Sirles parks his dusty pickup amid rows of peach trees, where Mexican pickers pluck fruit that a few years ago dropped to the ground to rot for lack of hands to harvest it.
Not this year. Sirles, whose great-great-grandfather founded Rendleman Orchards in the tiny town of Alto Pass in southern Illinois, has for the second season hired temporary foreign workers through the government’s H-2A visa program, stanching a loss of crops that threatened the viability of his family’s 144-year-old farm.
He didn’t want to. Determined to avoid the costs of the program, Sirles put up flyers in high schools, grocery stores and restaurants looking for local summertime help to pick peaches and apples.
But nothing came of the effort, he says. The family tried to work with the labor they had, but production got unsustainably low.
“We went for 3 or 4 years resisting the H-2A program because we thought we could do it, but we could not,” says Betty Sirles, Wayne’s mother. Now Rendleman’s team of 30 pickers includes 12 foreign workers on temporary visas who toil in the muggy midsummer heat alongside longtime employees but return to Mexico at the end of the 4-month harvest.
As the nation’s immigration debate roils, farms like Rendleman are far beyond the question of whether immigrant labor is needed. They say they can’t survive without it, their towns are better for it and that reforms are necessary to maintain and replenish the manpower they need to pull in each season’s harvest.
Revamping the H-2A visa program, which invites agricultural workers to work temporarily in seasonal jobs, is a priority for an industry that relies overwhelmingly on foreign-born workers to tend the fruits, vegetables and livestock that end up on American dinner tables. Three-quarters of the hired laborers who do most of the work on U.S. farms were born abroad, according to a recent paper published by the Migration Policy Institute. Nearly half don’t have legal authorization to work in the U.S.
The dependence on H-2A visas has grown as traditional farm labor pools shrink. Migrant workers who used to pass through the Midwest at harvest time have settled down to give their families more stability, and the number of Mexicans who used to flow across the border in search of work has been dwindling since the recession reduced demand and border security tightened. Meanwhile, immigrant farm workers already in the country are aging, and their kids are seeking different lines of work, just as U.S. farm families have seen their own kids do for decades.
The Department of Labor certified nearly 166,000 H-2A visas last year, more than double the number five years earlier. Unlike the nonagricultural H-1B and H-2B guest worker programs, there is no cap on the number of visas issued.
Illinois-based employers were certified for 809 H-2A visas in 2015, up 40 percent from 2010. So far this fiscal year, which started in October, 1,778 H-2A visas have been certified in Illinois. Most of the Illinois visas went to labor-intensive fruit and vegetable farms; corn and soybean farms rely more on automation.
The program isn’t cheap. H-2A workers must be paid a government-set wage that is high enough that it won’t adversely affect U.S. workers. In Illinois, this year’s rate is $13.01 an hour, significantly higher than the state’s $8.25 minimum wage.
Sarah Frey, co-owner of Frey Farms in Keenes, Illinois, the state’s largest H-2A employer, said she hires about 250 H-2A workers for the five-week pumpkin harvest in southern Illinois and Indiana. Including the housing and round-trip transportation employers are required to provide, each worker ends up costing about $16 an hour, she said.
Republican lawmakers have introduced several proposals to streamline the H-2A program and make it cheaper and easier for employers to hire temporary foreign workers. The proposed changes include cutting wages, reducing domestic recruiting requirements and allowing year-round visas for dairy and livestock workers.
Labor advocates like Farmworker Justice, which have long criticized foreign worker programs for being exploitative, oppose most of the measures. They don’t like the fact that the visas would continue to be tied to employers, which could dissuade workers from reporting abuses, and say the reforms don’t address the many undocumented laborers already working in the sector. In addition, the group says, employers shouldn’t need temporary workers for year-round jobs that could be attractive to U.S. workers.
Some farmers are looking forward to a bill slated to be introduced by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that proposes replacing the H-2A program with a new temporary H-2C visa. Agricultural workers who are in the country illegally could apply.
Under that proposal, seasonal workers who obtained H-2C visas could stay in the country for 18 months, and year-round foreign workers could stay for 36 months. It also would remove the requirement that employers provide transportation and housing and reduce the mandated wage to approximately 115 percent of the minimum wage.
Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing proposals to offer “blue cards” to immigrants who have worked in agriculture consistently for two years, which would give them legal status and, if they continue working in agriculture, the chance to pursue green cards.
For foreign laborers who toil in Illinois fields, the work is hot and gritty, but it also represents economic opportunity for them and the communities that host them.
At Rendleman Farms, which has 100 acres of peaches and 90 acres of apples to harvest, aluminum ladders clang as workers carry them from tree to tree. A flotilla of dragonflies hovers in the humidity.
Pickers, trained to gauge ripeness by color, collect ready peaches in padded tubs strapped across their chests and unload them into crates on a growling tractor. One worker standing on the tractor’s edge is tasked with separating the soft peaches meant for the farm’s on-site market from the firm ones destined for grocery stores. Mariano’s is a major customer.
“They’re looking for opportunities,” Sirles says of the workers. “Just like my forefathers did.”
Estanislao Tomas, a longtime Rendleman employee, found Alto Pass peaceful and made it his home as well. He came to the area illegally from Michoacan, Mexico, in the early 1980s in search of work, but said he was granted amnesty under President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 decree and is now a legal permanent resident. He goes back to Mexico every December to visit his family.
Tomas, who owns a Mexican grocery store in neighboring Cobden, knows he’s lucky. Other farmworkers in the area who are in the U.S. illegally have been scared of being stopped by police since the Trump administration instituted toughened immigration enforcement policies. They ask if their groceries can be brought to their homes because they’re afraid to leave.
But Sirles’ father, who goes by the nickname “Ren,” said area residents recognize that immigrants are good for the community and its economy, notwithstanding political rhetoric.
“Fifteen years ago, you take Cobden and Alto Pass, they were dying,” says Ren, 76. “These people start buying a fix-up home, and they fix them up, they pay their taxes, they mow their yards. They have revived both towns.”
Tomas, 56, wanted more than farm work for his kids, and he got it. His five children include a doctor, nurse, kindergarten teacher and director of a school, he said. His youngest son is about to graduate from law school.
“I am proud because I am a farmer who helped his children get ahead,” he says.
Jorge Uribe, 26, left his wife, toddler and newborn in their home in Guanajuato for the H-2A job, which pays far more than the 1,500 pesos weekly, or about $84, he makes at home working in construction.
Being away from his family for 4 months is the hardest part of the gig, Uribe says, but he wants to save money. He hopes to one day move his family to the U.S. so his kids can have a better education.
The fruit picking isn’t difficult so much as hot and tedious, says Uribe, who wears a long-sleeve button-down shirt to protect against the sun and scratches, and a bandana tucked into the back of a baseball cap to cover his neck.
Hurting for workers
Frey, who started her farming business in Keenes when she was a teenager, said that years ago she would harvest with the local football and softball teams and kids from the community. But as demand for locally grown produce soared and her business expanded, the local populations were too small to meet her labor needs.
“I am not of the opinion Americans won’t do this job,” said Frey, who now has farms in seven states and grows mostly melons and pumpkins. “There are simply not enough Americans living in these rural areas.”
Several workforce development experts in the area say the hiring challenge is real, and not just in agriculture.
“We are absolutely swamped with employers trying to fill good-paying jobs,” said John Otey, business services manager for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, who works in the southern region. “Getting the people, that’s our struggle.”
Agriculture work is never requested by job-seeking clients, said Pamela Barbee, who heads the regional agency responsible for administering federal funds to retrain dislocated workers, impoverished adults and youths with barriers. Most of her clients wish to be retrained in careers that set them on paths to self-sufficient wages, such as welding or truck driving, said Barbee, executive director of the Southern 14 Local Workforce Development Board.
Dennis Hoffman, labor market analyst for the agency’s southern region, said there’s been job growth in retail, tourism and health care along the major corridors, and “people will drive 60 miles or more for good-paying jobs,” Hoffman said.
But many other people aren’t interested in formal employers, preferring to earn cash with informal fix-it or service jobs, Otey said. Agriculture jobs are particularly difficult to fill, he said, because it “is hard to move people who are not associated with that kind of work into that kind of work.”
“I think it’s times changing,” said Justin Horn, 28, who was born and raised in the Alto Pass area. “Our parents grew up around, ‘You have to work hard for everything you want.’ I think we’re straying away from that. People don’t really want to do manual labor.”
Horn works at a company that rents out contractor equipment, and his wife, Katie, is a laser technician in Marion, a larger city about 30 miles north. He dreams of opening a country line dancing bar.
Horn said the immigrant labor powering the fruit farms is welcome, as produce drives the area’s economy. Union County is the state’s No. 1 producer of fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Back at Rendleman, Jesus Roman, 18, who has several family members working at the farm, helps load the packaged peaches into trucks. Roman, who graduates from high school in Cobden next spring, said most of his friends are not interested in the work, “maybe because they didn’t grow up around it.”
He could be in the fields picking, but “I’d rather be in here,” where it’s cooler, he said. Eventually, he hopes to be a diesel mechanic.
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