Alabama farmers brace for harvest without help, amid immigration fears

(WIAT) — As the summer harvest draws near, farmers across Alabama worry their produce will rot on the vine.

“It’s been a lot harder to find workers,” said Scott Penton, who owns Penton Farms in Clanton. “A lot of (workers) are scared, since Trump got elected. They’re worried about what he’s going to do.”

Donald Trump launched immigration to the forefront of the national conversation in 2015 when he announced he was running for President.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said during his first speech as a candidate. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”

Working in a field, a woman tells CBS 42 she is in the United States illegally.

“We are scared because we are just here to work and have a good life,” she said in Spanish, asking to be kept anonymous.

She said she’s been in the country for 20 years, and that Trump’s presidency makes her scared she’ll be arrested.

She told CBS 42 the only reason she continues to work is to feed her children.

Some agree with Trump’s stance on a tough immigration policy, from a security standpoint.

“If (Mexican immigrants) commit crimes, how would you find them if you don’t even know they’re here?” said Barry White, a member of the Border Keepers of Alabama, a volunteer group which travels to the U.S.-Mexico border to help federal agents enforce illegal activity.

While patrolling, White said he often saw drugs and violence crossing into the U.S.

“There’s not any other countries that anybody else can go to, where they’re going to let you walk right in,” White said. “That doesn’t happen. Why should our country be that way?”

But rather than seeing this issue from a security standpoint, many in Alabama’s farm industry see it from an economic standpoint.

“You can’t afford to go out here and spend thousands, and tens of thousands, planting a crop, not knowing if you’re going to get it picked,” Penton said. “So you just won’t plant it.”

That, Penton said, will drive up the price of produce.

“Without [Mexican] people helping to pick stuff, the United States will starve to death. We would,” said a farmer in St. Clair County, who asked to remain anonymous in fear of implicating himself for hiring undocumented workers. “The Mexicans are the only people that’ll work.”

Both Penton and the St. Clair County farmer point back to 2011, when the Alabama Legislature passed HB 56, a bill that gave law enforcement the authority to arrest anyone they suspected of living in the U.S. Illegally.

“It put a lot of people out of business,” Penton said.

When HB 56 passed, immigrant families were driven into the shadows, fearing deportation.

“I was nervous to go to school, because I was afraid people would ask me– I was afraid people would interrogate me about my background,” said Brandon Vela, an immigrant from Mexico.

Vela, 18, came to the U.S. when he was one year old.

He and his parents worked on farms in Chilton County.

He remembers in 2001, “Watermelon fields, tomato fields, peach fields, all of those produce — all of that produce that was growing and ready for picking, and nobody was there to pick it. So what happened — it was falling, it was rotting to the ground, and nobody was making their money.”

In the months and years to come, portions of HB 56 would be struck down by judges, Vela would gain legal status under the DREAM Act and get a fulltime job at a cell phone store.

President Trump has said he plans to enforce existing immigration laws, emphasizing the pursuit of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes in the U.S.

Still, Vela worries his legal residency will be taken away.

“We feel that all the money we get, we’ve got to save, save, save, in case the worst comes and we’ve got to pack our bags and go,” Vela said.

Vela said friends of his family’s went back to Mexico after the election, “because of fear that they were going to relive the uncertainty that happened in 2011. It’s a lot of fear in the community. And if there’s anything that knows how to manipulate, it’s fear itself.”

Back at Penton Farms, families make a day of gathering strawberries in the fields.

“What we’ve tried to do, is we’ve tried to transition more to you-pick and stuff that’s less labor intensive, and let people come out and pick the stuff themselves so we don’t have to have very much help,” Penton said, adding that his son’s friends also help fill the labor void.

Many farmers across the U.S. have utilized the H-2A visa program, which is designed specifically to bring seasonal farm workers to the country legally.

Penton said he looked into it, but it’s too expensive to make sense for his business.

“Just if you want a couple of workers it still costs a lot,” Penton said. “You have to provide housing and transportation to and from where you’re getting (the workers) from.”

According to a survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of farmers who hired workers with H-2A visas, administrative delays led to workers arriving, on average, 22 days late.

The survey said the delays caused an economic loss of almost $320 million among the farms.

Thanks to a warm winter, an early harvest approaches in Alabama.

Penton said there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how much help will be available.

“Nobody really knows exactly what’s going to happen, exactly how (the Trump administration) is going to enforce (immigration laws), how hard they’re going enforce them, or if they’re going to come up with a solution before they enforce the immigration,” Penton said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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