A Harvest Ripe with Tension
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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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