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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

A Harvest Ripe with Tension

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A group of apple pickers head deep into the orchard where they will work for the next few months in Wolcott, N.Y. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

WAYNE COUNTY, N.Y.--In an apple grove of beckoning trees, a Fairfax high school graduate labors alongside six Mexican men, filling crates with freshly picked Galas and Lindamacs.

“All of them?” one man asks in Spanish, unsure of which ones to drop in the bucket that hangs around his neck.

“All but the bad ones,” Chris Wagner, a 1986 graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, replies in his best, but stunted Spanish.

If Michael and I had met Wagner a year earlier, we would have found a man in charge of his own business, earning $50 an hour. But when we met him on our way through New York, he confessed that he was doing a job “not too many white people want,” earning a little more than minimum wage. How he got there is a story about both the recession and immigration enforcement. It’s about how one man didn’t show up for apple picking season this year and how another was suddenly, not by choice, grateful to have that job.

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Chris Wagner checks for bad apples among those the workers had just picked. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post


It all started with a phone call in March.

Philip Wagner, Chris’s father, was expecting his crew chief, a man who had worked on Wagner’s farm for three years and had been employed by another apple grower for 13 years before that. The crew chief and his family usually arrived in Wayne County well before apple harvest season began and stayed a little after it ended. But this March, the man called to say he wouldn’t be coming, that he, his wife and daughter were staying in Mexico because they were too afraid of the area’s U.S. Border Control agents. He wasn't sure if they'd ever be able to come again, he told Wagner.

That’s when Wagner, 61, called his son.

Chris Wagner, 41, had built up a successful business installing sun rooms in Pennsylvania. But as the economy slumped, fewer requests for his services came in and payments that had been promised never arrived. One by one, Wagner said he had to lay off his company’s eight employees, until he was down to himself. By the time his father called with the job offer, he and his wife had lost their house to foreclosure.

“The economy basically killed me,” Chris Wagner said.

So he took a job he couldn’t have imagined accepting a few years earlier. You might think that with so few jobs available elsewhere in the nation, more migrant workers than ever would've made their way to this apple-rich region for the harvest that began this month. But they didn't. When Michael and I arrived, we met apple growers who said they weren't worried about any excess of hands. If anything, they were concerned there might be too few.

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Apple pickers riding in the the back of a truck take in the view of the orchard where they will work that day. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

For that, they blame the Border Patrol. Recent media reports have described a growing hostility in the region between federal agents and farmers who have accused them of unjustly targeting and detaining Hispanic workers, allegedly without regard to whether they have legal permission to work in this country. Federal investigators recently got involved after the local newspaper, the Wayne County Star, reported on several Mexican immigrants who were detained by federal agents; after the piece was published, readers posted a few particularly vicious comments on the newspaper's Web site. The paper decided to track down the offending commenters and found that the nasty remarks appear to have originated from U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security computers.

“We have essentially a war going on in Wayne County,” said Phil Wagner, who is on his 12th harvest in this region and is president of the county’s farm bureau. He lived in Fairfax for eight years while stationed in the Washington area with the Army and said he is appalled by the blatant profiling he's seen of migrant workers. “I served my country for 27 years and I didn’t come back to watch my fellow citizens or my fellow human beings treated like rats.”

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Phil Wagner cruises through the apple farm he started 13 years ago. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

He knows he should be more worried about the dropping demand for foods such as applesauce at a time when the harvest is richer than it's been in years. "There will be thousands of bushels of apples that won't even get picked in New York state this year," he said. But even more devastating to his business, he said, is the possibility that he could lose his workers at any time. Migrant workers have always fueled the local economy, Wagner said, and without them apples won't get picked. If they are detained, or deported, he said, the apples will rot.

“All it takes is for the border patrol to drive up on my property and take my workers and I’m dead,” he said. “The fruit’s not going to wait.”

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Sitting left to right, Roberto Ramos, Noel Jaramillo and Cristobal Tolentine take a breather outside the house where they live on the Wagner Apple Farm in Wolcott, N.Y. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Chris Wagner was in the field with the men the other day when a friend of his drove up in a pick up truck. The workers panicked, he said. (Phil Wagner said the men he's hired all produced documentation showing they have permission to work in this country, but he can't be sure the documents are authentic).

"They started asking me, ‘Should we run? Should we run? Is it the border patrol?’" Chris Wagner said.

The men, all between the ages of 21 and 27, said they rarely leave Wagner's property, where they live together in a house. The don't go out to lunch as they did in years past. And several now ask Wagner to cash their checks for them. (They earn between $9.50 an hour and $12.50 an hour).

“When we do leave, we’re careful,” Oswaldo Ramiro, 22, said in Spanish. “We do it with a lot of fear.”

“It’s unfair,” added Mauricio Hernandez, 25. “We’re just here to work and nothing more. We’re here three months and then we leave.”

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Oswaldo Ramiro sweats under the afternoon sun as he pulls a Ginger Gold apple from a tree at the Wagner Apple Farm. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

He says this while walking through the field, clearing trees weighed down by the healthy harvest. The apples surrender easily with a flick of the wrist and a tug. The buckets slung across the men's torsos grow heavier and heavier. The buckets weigh about 40 pounds when they're full, at which point the men dump the apples into a crate that Chris tosses into the back of a rusty truck. It's a hot afternoon and it shows on his face. He wipes the sweat away from his brow with a forearm.

“He’s saving me,” Phillip Wagner said of his son. “I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t come.”

The old crew chief on the phone, he said, told him, “No more. I don’t think I will come back again.”

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Oswaldo Ramiro carries his apple bucket into the field as he joins the other workers already in the orchard. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 18, 2009; 2:34 PM ET
 
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Comments

I live in Mexico, in a Mexican neighborhood and almost all of my friends are Mexican. You have only touched the tip of the iceberg. Most Latinos, not just Mexicans, fear and detest the U.S. just for this reason. They've come to realize that Obama is only continuing Bush's Latin American policies, such as they are. I've lost count of the number of times I have had to apologize for having come from the U.S.

Posted by: lambert_larry | September 18, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Most of the people who work in the US and
are from South America - legal or illegal -
do nothing to support the US economy --
they live in housing that is overcrowded
by their own design, and send most of
the money they make in the US back to
THEIR COUNTRY.

Perhaps they should work to improve their
lives in South America, instead of running
away from the problems.


Give these jobs to Americans who will spend
their hard-earned money in the US

Posted by: Sirius2 | September 18, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I don't have a problem with migrant workers who come for a harvest season with proper permission and then return to their home country. I DO have a problem with being invaded by illegals from Mexican who bring families and have anchor babies and get US paid taxpayer benefits and use our ER for kidney dialysis, organ transplants and cancer care. We need these people to be deported. We should never give anyone who came here illegally amnesty and a route to citizenship.

Posted by: Lavrat2000 | September 18, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

First of all, most Americans won't work those jobs. If they did, then we wouldn't be hiring laborers from overseas. As my second job, I manage a store, and most of the people aren't willing to work hard for their money - they expect to show up and have you hand them their check.
Secondly, even if the laborers come and send their money overseas, the farmers will spend the money they make on apples in America.
I'm not saying that we should just let everyone in, but it's just as devastating for growers to have no one to pick the apples as it is to have them pay migrant workers to send their money overseas. Maybe we should take some of the people on welfare, provide them housing in NY, and have THEM pick the apples.

Posted by: plcrisostomo | September 18, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

As a resident of Texas, I have seen the (bad) results of illegal immigration. If we had a workable migrant worker program......if, if, if. It isn't going to happen. We can't do anything right, we can't even take care of our own health care.

A workable program would make sure that worker's pay and rights were secured, and a workable program would make sure that the workers returned to Mexico. These things seem beyond us, we just don't know to govern anymore.

Posted by: rusty3 | September 18, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

$12/ Hr?

No creyo yo!

The jerkwad Employer probably pays a LOT less! Then, he probably charges for Room and Board!

Arresting the Workers(Who BTW are EASILY found with-imagine this: an EMPLOYMENT Ad!), is the wrong thing to do!

Arresting and FINING the tax Dodging CRIMINAL Employer selling out Americans...

Now THAT'S:

Muy Bueno! ;~)

Posted by: SAINT---The | September 18, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Oh my-it is laughable! Do you really think there is a single illegal doing a job that a true-blue-born-and-bread American would do? If you think Americans would pick fruits or vegetables or clean (or get dirty in any manner)for a living you are mistaken. American's are above the "crappy" hard jobs...so who's jobs are they taking? Yes, they are underpaid but they are also under educated. I would love to see those who receive welfare checks put to work doing anything-same goes for unemployment-why do we pay people to do nothing and cry that we have illegal people doing jobs that no one else will do? Oh yeah we need some changes in this country!

Posted by: keb09 | September 18, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

All the anti-illegal-worker people should realize that apples (and most other staples of the American diet) are affordable bc of Latino labor. They get a job and you get affordable food. win-win.

When you bite into a $6 apple, take solace in the fact that it was plucked by an American.

Posted by: urbancow | September 18, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Serius2, lavrat2000

It is clear that you do not know the facts about immigrants here in the U.S., either legal or illegal. If you obtain your information from FOX/Lew Dobbs, or similar talk show bloviators, then your viewpoints, though misguided, are understandable. Understandable, but far from reality, either concerning the economics, the healthcare status, or the living conditions. You might volunteer some time and work with some of the immigrant groups where you can acquire real information, rather than skewed blather. And maybe you might consider what you and your family will be eating if all of the migrant workers told us to kiss off.

Posted by: DemocraCFigher | September 18, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

give drug tests to welfare, unemployment, food stamp, and any reciprient of government services. If they have illegal drugs in them, cut them off. If they are not disabled then put their butts to work. If there is not enough Americans to do the work then legal immigrant workers program could supplement the work force. We jut don't have the money anymore. President ACORN and the democrat socialist party has seen to that.

Posted by: charlietuna666 | September 18, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Get a grip, xenophobes. There are valid counterpoints to all of your complaining. Unfortunately, providing them would be a wasted effort. Let's hope Obama accomplishes what Shrub couldn't--meaningful resolution of the "illegal immigrant" issues.

Posted by: DamnedLiberal | September 18, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse


Let's start with the truth: most illegal immigrants are honest, hardworking, and want nothing more than a chance at a better life.

Now, haven't New York apple growers heard of the agricultural guest-worker program?

Or maybe it's too much trouble and too expensive to hire legal immigrant labor.

If every illegal immigrant in the country were made legal tonight at midnight, next year Mr. Wagner would be back to hiring illegal pickers.

That's because illegal immigrant are not stupid nor without ambition. Just like legal workers, when they can, they go to better paying jobs. Like roofing, laying tile, carpentry, and other construction work. That's why most illegal workers are already in jobs outside of agriculture.

Some of these are jobs that citizens will do.

But citizens will not do it if they have to underbid illegal workers who will sleep 10 to an apartment. Who because they are illegal, never complain: not when they are cheated on their paychecks, not when they aren't paid overtime, not when they have no benefits.

It may well be that the guest-worker program needs fixing. And maybe we all need to pay more for produce. But it is wrong to benefit from the cheap labor of the desperately poor. And in the long run, there is nothing cheap about cheap labor.

Posted by: WylieD | September 18, 2009 8:49 PM | Report abuse

$9.50 - $12.00 / hour is money that could be supporting a family who supports the economy right here in the United States of America. I disagree with the argument that Americans don't want to work in the fields, that's just bull. People will do whatever they have to do, even working at McDonalds to pay the rent. I'd rather take work working in the fields than work at McDonalds any day of the week!
The Washington Post should be responsible to the legal working population of this country by perpetuating stories that empower Americans to act -- not by writing stories about the woes of the illegal worker, their worries while they camp in America for three months.
The focus of this blog was/is about how people's lives have been affected by the flattened economy -- America's flattened economy and those workers who are legal contributing citizens, here.

Posted by: washedlikeadish | September 19, 2009 9:17 PM | Report abuse

"most illegal immigrants are honest, hardworking, and want nothing more than a chance at a better life." POSTED by WylieD

OXYMORON --

Key word "illegal" immigrants are committing an illegal act by choosing a path to America to work.

Illegal is not honest by any stretch.

Posted by: washedlikeadish | September 19, 2009 9:26 PM | Report abuse

By that logic the Pilgrims, Puritans, Jamestown Settlers and Cavaliers were all "illegal" too. Should we send their descendants back to England?

Posted by: topshelf_22304 | September 22, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I grew up in Wayne County and now live in Washington DC. I actually used to pick apples at the age of 15 in Wayne County on a farm right near here.

2 things...

1. If you believe that this guy is paying them $9.00 - $12.50 per hour, I have some ocean front property to sell you in Kansas.

2. I've worked side by side with these guys and they were from sunup to sundown. Find me a single American worker from that area of the country that's willing work 12 hour days, with no benefits, working for minimum wage in the hot sun.

I did it because I was 15 and had few other options for work. Not to mention that area is so rural you couldn't find more than 50 people to work the fields.

Posted by: wheels979 | September 22, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Find me a homeless person who is hungry who wouldn't work 12 hours a day to eat and have a home?

Most people do not choose to be homeless and will do just about anything to avoid that living condition.

Try living in a vehicle, sleeping in the drivers seat, and wondering when you will get to eat next.

We are not in a situation where you have to pull teeth to get people to work. The opportunity has to be there, hence don't hire illegal workers to do the work that others would be grateful and thankful to have.

Posted by: washedlikeadish | September 24, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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