Michael Frank / David Litman / Joshua Lott / Jeff Topping / Reuters / The Atlantic

Can America's Farms Survive the Threat of Deportations?

In upstate New York, both workers and the farmers who employ them fear more aggressive immigration enforcement.

It was one in the morning in late March when Luis, a 43-year-old Mexican man, tiptoed across the floor in his socks. He had just been startled from sleep by the sound of violent knocking on the door of the double-wide trailer where he and a few other farmworkers live. He was terrified; he leaned against the wall and listened.

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Luis is no stranger to violence. Even though he has worked on a relatively tranquil apple farm in upstate New York’s mid-Hudson region for over a decade, he originally came to the United States to flee the violence in Guerrero state on Mexico’s west coast. For years there, vigilante militias have been fighting back against local warlords. The last time he was home, five years ago, Luis wanted to stay. He drove a pickup truck as a form of taxi service for hotel workers, but the warlords held him up at gunpoint, threatening to kill him if he didn’t give them a cut of his fares. (Pseudonyms have been used in several instances throughout this article to protect the identities of undocumented farmworkers and the farmers who employ them.)

“If you don’t pay,” Luis told me, “they kill you.” So he journeyed back to the United States, walking across Mexico every night for a week under the guidance of a “coyote,” or human smuggler. That, too, was frightening. He says he was so thirsty, he thought he might die.

But in March, in the middle of the night in the Hudson Valley, Luis’s fear wasn’t dehydration or gangs—he was afraid that agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement might be outside. He locked the door to his bedroom and waited. Eventually, the knocking stopped, but Luis barely slept that night. The next day, he found out that the hammering on the trailer’s door was an incoming guest worker who had wound up sleeping outside on the stoop of another sprawling double-wide trailer on the farm. During picking season in late summer, the farm houses dozens of seasonal and undocumented workers.

Luis had good cause to be afraid. About a week prior to the late-night knocking, ICE had picked up an undocumented farmworker on this same farm because he’d been convicted of two DUIs. And a few days after that, on a different apple farm just a few miles away, ICE had come before sunup for a 23-year-old man, Diego, who is from Guatemala. He had also been charged with DUIs. Diego is one of four brothers who, one by one over the years, all hitchhiked from Central America, walked across Mexico, and eventually found their way to the Hudson Valley to pick apples. He’s now detained, awaiting deportation proceedings in lower Manhattan. According to his attorney at a local nonprofit public-defense firm, Diego has a less than 5 percent chance of getting bail, much less staying in the United States.

(Photo by Michael Frank / Illustration by The Atlantic)

Since Donald Trump took office in January, ICE has been newly empowered and encouraged to target undocumented immigrants with criminal records for deportation—a practice that winds up capturing a huge number of undocumented immigrants without criminal records, too. But, while the Trump administration may be more zealous about enforcement than previous administrations, they have not actually  changed any laws. Existing immigration legislation has long been at odds with the U.S. economy and with farming communities across the country. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric is only having an impact because of the legal framework buttressing it. Which is why, after a string of ICE arrests cut through the local Hudson Valley farm community, word quickly spread among Hispanic farmworkers there that nobody is safe.

As in the rest of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as much as half of the farm workforce in New York is undocumented. The fear of deportation looming over Hudson Valley farmworkers is also impacting farmers—what they’re willing to plant and what they think they’ll be able to harvest.

“My ancestors are Irish and they were called all sorts of names,” Pete, a 58-year-old farmer, told me. He said the country has swung back around to how it was a century ago. “Now people say Hispanics are taking their jobs,” Pete said. “Come on. You can’t get a kid who can flip a burger to come here and do this job for $15 an hour. If we had a workforce that was willing to do this work, I’d hire them, but we don’t.” A 2014 American Farm Bureau study backs that up: It shows that unemployed Americans regularly shun farm work, even preferring to stay unemployed.

Which is one reason why Pete told me he’s anticipating a rough year: He’s not sure he’ll have the hands to do the work on his berry, apple, and vegetable crops. “Word of mouth used to bring guys to the farm during the harvest, but now I don’t know,” he said. He wouldn’t agree to let me use his name because he said even talking to a reporter had him worried about repercussions from zealous ICE agents. (While we were talking, Pete’s wife yelled at him to hang up the phone. He didn’t.) Pete pointed to an ICE arrest of five farmworkers in western New York who did not have criminal records. He said it’s just that kind of unpredictability that adds another layer of uncertainty to a business already fraught with pressures farmers cannot control—like the weather or consumer appetites.

Pete points out that the undocumented community is a net contributor to taxes. It’s true: A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that undocumented immigrants contribute billions of dollars to state and local taxes across the country. Deporting them, Pete added, will only hurt Americans. “If they just stopped contributing to the workforce, we’d have a major crisis,” he said. “Pretending [deportation] fixes the system that’s broken only means less food; it doesn’t fix how this works.”

The official, legal policy solution for farmers who need extra help has been in place in one form or another since World War II. The H2-A visa program asks farmers to apply to bring in foreign workers for the harvest season. Many farmers use the program, and some of the owners of the smaller farms I talked to use it exclusively. That knock on the door of Luis’s trailer at one in the morning? It was the arrival of an H2-A worker fresh off a flight from Jamaica. But the program was created in the 1950s, and it isn’t well suited to farm labor today—and for most farmers, it has become a bureaucratic nightmare.

The annual slog through red tape puts farms at risk. Every farmer I talked to about H2-A mentioned delays in getting workers—which imperils the harvest. In 2015, for instance, a computer glitch held up hundreds of workers from Mexico, partially ruining Washington state’s cherry crop that year. Yet, none of the Hudson Valley farmers I interviewed for this story who use H2-A would go on the record to criticize it. The farmers are scared they won’t get the workers they need if they do. Farmers told me that it seems like just about any pretext is used to prevent them from getting their labor supply legally. One farmer told me she’d critiqued the program in a blog post a few years back, and she was paranoid that’s why she didn’t get her workers that year. A vegetable producer told me: “One year I didn’t get an H2-A worker because I didn’t use the word drive, as in, ‘Must drive a tractor.’ I used operate on the application.” Apparently, the farmer’s wording was not precise enough. Add the recent deportations to the existing H2-A delays and application concerns, and you’ve got one nervous farming community. (When I asked the Department of Labor about these H2-A problems, a spokesman told me the Trump administration was still too new to have a policy position on the program or about the concerns farmers have voiced about the system.)

This year, the fear of not having enough undocumented labor or enough H2-A workers has farmers planting fewer crops across the Hudson Valley. “Farmers are afraid they won’t be able to harvest what they plant,” said Steve Ammerman of the New York Farm Bureau. Ammerman told me there’s a disconnect in Washington, D.C., between what the Trump administration thinks immigration enforcement means for America and what it really means. “It means food prices are going to go up, hurting national security,” he said. Ammerman pointed to a recent study that estimates the consequences if all undocumented New York agricultural workers are deported: There would be a 24 percent fall in farm production (amounting to $1.37 billion in commodity value lost) and a knock-on effect of nearly 45,000 lost jobs across the state.

While it’s hard to know for sure what will happen by harvest season this fall, several farmers I spoke to said they’re either planting less or hedging what crops they’ll tend to. “I might have to rip out the trees that have the least margin,” Sam, an apple grower, told me. “Once you put pen to paper, you realize if you don’t have the labor, you can’t make a profit.”

The 33-year-old farmer sat with me one night in his tight office space, which looked like it had last been remodeled in about 1965—save that Sam was eyeing a coming storm on a live satellite weather map on a huge flat-panel TV screen. He told me he’s proud that his family has farmed in the Hudson Valley for seven generations, but he wishes more Americans understood how farming really works in 2017. “If you want to deport people, okay, then you’d better fund rather than defund research,” Sam said. “You want organic, okay, then you have to fund research to make that cheaper. You don’t want immigrants, then you need to fund robotics.”

Of course, robots don’t aspire to the American Dream, and Sam thinks manual labor is a fundamental rung on the American economic ladder. “It’s American back to the days of our founding that immigrants do the hard work so they can save and put their kids through school,” he said. “And that in turn saves every American tens of thousands of dollars in cheaper food costs over their lifetimes, so they can shift that money for their kids, to buy a home. It’s all connected. You can’t not have labor and still have cheap food.” And if Sam doesn’t have the labor he needs this year? He’ll “let the fruit rot on the ground.”

That, Paul Alward told me, is in his mind “a binary decision.” Coldly rational, but depressing, and the way a lot of farmers are thinking these days. Alward runs Hudson Valley Harvest, a large distributor that works with over 90 small farms in the region, connecting them to buyers around upstate, in New York City, and even in New Jersey and Boston. Alward’s customers range from chefs who cook at the restaurants in Google’s Chelsea headquarters to chain grocers. But he said this year is striking, different from any time in the recent past. “We sell to a lot of restaurants in New York City,” Alward said, “and tourism has dropped off a cliff under Trump.” It’s true: New York City’s official tourism agency has already predicted a noticeable impact to foreign tourism in the wake of Trump’s travel ban and protectionist rhetoric.

So farmers aren’t expected to produce as much food, and the competition to sell what they do produce to restaurants will be stiffer. Alward can try to sell more to grocery-supply chains to provide a cushion for his business, but that won’t help the farmers who are simply planting less or the consumers who are paying more. And it isn’t just restaurant-goers who are feeling the financial effects; it’s anyone who eats. According to The Wall Street Journal, farmers across America are planting fewer crops or discarding portions of their harvests due to labor shortages from heightened immigration enforcement. “In the past, they could hire H2-A workers and augment with migrant workers,” Alward said. “But if you can’t plan for that, you absolutely have to plant less. The reality is that reports of deportations has farmers scared like I’ve never seen before.”

Some cities in this region are attempting to create a reprieve for both farmers and their workers. Cities like Hudson and Kingston have adopted sanctuary-city status by continuing to provide government services to residents no matter their immigration category. And on April 20, New Paltz passed a law codifying what police can and cannot ask about citizenship status when they encounter members of the public. Deputy Supervisor Dan Torres told me that New Paltz is using conservative principles of home rule and states’ rights to fight what he called a threat to the Constitution. “I think the Trump White House’s intention is clear,” he said, “to undercut communities and the power that they have through the Constitution by creating a campaign of fear and misunderstanding.” Torres said his biggest worry is that members of the community won’t come forward in matters of public safety or if they’re the victim of a violent crime, and he was especially worried that the economic and social impacts on the farming community would be severe.

(Photo by Michael Frank / Illustration by The Atlantic)

Of course, not everyone supports these kinds of legislative reactions. A few miles north of New Paltz, Saugerties Chief of Police Joe Sinagra told me the sanctuary movement is toothless. He said that if people want to help the undocumented community, “grandstanding politicians” should back efforts in the state assembly to allow undocumented aliens to obtain driver’s licenses; in fact, most states with high agricultural production do allow their workforces to obtain driver’s licenses, in part because it lowers insurance costs. “What happens if they don’t have a license is they see a police car in the rearview mirror and they speed away,” said Sinagra. “That could lead to an accident—maybe they get hurt, maybe the police get hurt, maybe somebody gets killed—all over a piece of paper.”

The chief is mystified by New Paltz’s legislation because he says New York state law already bars officers from asking about citizenship unless they’re processing an arrest. “We’re not changing the way we do business under Trump,” said Sinagra. “For one thing, we don’t have time, and for another, we want everyone here to know if they’re a victim of a crime or they might have witnessed a crime, we want them to feel safe coming forward.” Still, Sinagra has helped ICE with detentions in the past and said he would continue to do so as a member of local law enforcement. So, while he may not be targeting immigrants or asking about their status, he also isn’t protecting them from deportation, nor is he eager to change town policy in their favor like New Paltz. As Sinagra assured me, the only change his department has seen under Trump is that now the country has a president “who respects police and believes in law and order.”

But Genia Blaser, a staff attorney for the Immigrant Defense Project in New York City, which works on cases where immigration law and criminal law intersect, told me that the New Paltz legislation and the broader sanctuary movement in the Hudson Valley do have a purpose. She said that contrary to Sinagra’s claim, there is no statewide law barring civil detainers (that is, stopping or detaining people based solely on the suspicion that they are in the United States illegally). She said the New Paltz law provides a good template for other towns to follow: It prevents police from detaining someone based on National Crime Information Center database “hits” when that person is in the federal system but their only crime is being in the country without documentation. Also, Blaser said the New Paltz law allows the police department to opt out of Trump’s 287G expansion, which deputizes local law enforcement to work with ICE on detention orders.

That’s important, Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi of New Paltz told me. He fears that community-policing efforts, especially on local farms, will be undermined by officers who feel pressured to help ICE detain or arrest undocumented workers. He doesn’t want the community to see cops as part of ICE. “If we’re called to do an investigation,” said Lucchesi, “they need to know we’re not there to inquire about immigration; we’re there to help solve a crime.”

Unfortunately, it may be too late for that. Blaser told me that when it comes to the current mood in the immigrant community, everything has changed. “Our hotline’s been inundated since the inauguration,” said Blaser. As far as her office is concerned, it’s obvious ICE’s priorities and power have been greatly expanded. “Just listen to the rhetoric versus the prior administration,” she added. What’s more, ICE has been making news recently for its arrests throughout the Hudson Valley’s broader Hispanic community.

In February, for example, on the east side of the river in the increasingly gentrified town of Hudson, ICE arrested Ramiro Martinez-Chacon outside his home in front of his two U.S.-born sons, ages 6 and 12. Martinez-Chacon was charged with illegally reentering the United States after being deported in 2000. The case received a lot of media attention because Martinez-Chacon’s wife, Maria de Jesus Canterero Mercado, now also faces deportation orders, imperiling the fate of their two American boys. Like her husband, Mercado had entered the United States illegally but had no other criminal record.

And in March, Joel Guerrero from the college town of New Paltz was detained and arrested during his biannual ICE check-in meeting in Manhattan. This case also received a lot of media attention in part because Guerrero was a green-card holder; he legally emigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic and is currently married to an American woman—who is pregnant with the couple’s first child and due any day now. ICE, however, claims Guerrero’s legal status had been revoked in 2011 and that he had a years-old felony conviction for marijuana. Guerrero’s family insists he was granted clemency and that the marijuana charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. Guerrero was jailed for 10 weeks and now, at the discretion of ICE, has been released while his case is pending.

Blaser pointed to Guerrero’s arrest in New Paltz as emblematic of what has changed now that Trump is in the White House. Whether or not Guerrero’s marijuana felony was knocked down to a misdemeanor, Blaser said, these days “immigration has its own interpretation of what they consider to be an ‘aggravated felony.’ Now anyone not a U.S. citizen is more vulnerable to deportation.”

And that is exactly the point, said Emma Kreyche of the Worker Justice Center of New York in Kingston. “This is Trump’s strategy,” she told me. “They say they’re targeting criminals, but they’re expanding the definition of what’s considered a criminal—looking for pretext.” Kreyche noted a recent report from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications that shows the portion of people detained after a court filing has been issued is up considerably—with an average detention rate of about 80 percent under Trump, compared with about 50 percent per year over the last five years under Barack Obama.

ICE’s public-affairs officer for southern New York state, Rachael Yong Yow, denied that detention rates had significantly increased locally. But according to data she provided, the ICE arrest rates of criminal and non-criminal detainees in the first seven weeks of the Trump administration compared with the same period dating back to 2014 showed a marked increase in non-criminal detentions in the region. Year-to-date non-criminal arrests have doubled, and criminal arrests increased by 11 percent. When I asked Yong Yow about crackdowns on farmworkers in particular, she emailed a boilerplate response: “ICE focuses its enforcement resources first on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security.” She added that, as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly “has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

Some of the workers didn’t want to slaughter chickens,” one undocumented woman told me about a side job she had picked up. “But when I heard about it, I raised my hand. I don’t care, work is work.” The woman and her husband, 38 and 45 respectively, both from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, have been in the United States for more than a decade. Their two older Mexican-born kids, 18 and 16, are DACA recipients. Their youngest child is 6—and a U.S. citizen. The husband works partly in New York state’s booming cider industry, where he presses apples into juice for hard cider. She cleans houses, works in an apple-packing facility, and does an extra shift working in a chicken slaughterhouse. The couple is deeply proud of their work ethic. Though they are not officially Americans, they told me, this is the American Dream. Besides, the husband said, “When you go by the farms, you don’t see 10 or 15 Americans out there trimming the orchards.” He gets it: “They’re looking for better jobs, pay, benefits.”

Others are less charitable. A farmworker named Miguel told me that agricultural work is hard, and Americans want something easier. I spoke to Miguel and his friend José during the last week of March at the fruit farm where José has worked for more than a dozen years. We sat in a sparsely appointed double-wide among a cluster of other trailers. The walls were paneled in faux-wood, and there was a small kitchen and living area. A calendar hung on one wall, but otherwise there was little ornamentation. The furniture looked like mostly mismatched cast-offs from Goodwill, but everything was tidy and it was warm inside against the spring chill. José is maybe five feet tall, 40, muscular, wears an easy smile, and has small, thick hands. José’s younger brother is Diego, the young man who was arrested in the wake of a DUI and who will most likely be deported. José told me that Diego arrived in the United States when he was just 15 and thinks of America as his home.

Miguel told me that he too came to the States as a young man; originally from Mexico, he’s now 40 and has two American children, 14 and 18, who are both citizens. “We see it on TV—but it’s in California, somewhere else, so you don’t know if you should believe it,” he said. “Now it’s happening here … It’s real.”

At the end of my visit with José and Miguel, I told them that I wanted to take a photo of them standing together. So we stepped outside the warm trailer into the flat spring light. I assured them I wouldn’t show their faces to protect their identities. “Thank you,” Miguel said, “but I wish Americans could see our faces. They need to understand, we’re real people, too.”

One afternoon, I went back to the farm where Luis works; I visited him in the shabby kitchen/common room of his house. “I want to go home to my country someday,” Luis told me. In the past, he had always been ready with a smile and even his body language had been warm. But on this visit, there was a weight of defeat to him. “I want to go home,” he said again. “But I don’t want to go with ICE. I have a bank account; I have things. I want to go home, but not like that.” Here in the Hudson Valley, Luis works on Sam’s farm as a jack-of-all-trades—packing apples, pruning trees, running a forklift. “He’s one of my best workers,” Sam said. “He’s been with me for over a decade. There needs to be some dignified work visa for people who’ve come here and done nothing but work, proving themselves.”

But that’s not the direction things are going, and the results will be felt far and wide, by the farmers whose businesses may go under, the consumers who may see prices rise, and, of course, the workers themselves, who may not be here for long.