Every year, several thousand foreign-born workers come to Maine legally to do a job no one born here wants to do: harvesting apples, blueberries, broccoli and other crops. But as anti-immigrant fervor mounts, it’s adding to a justifiably high level of concern about what the future will bring for growers and those who work for them.
Nearly 1 in 5 farmworkers in Maine is a migrant worker. Some have documentation to work legally in the U.S. on a permanent basis. Others are here temporarily on federal H-2A visas. Employers that hire through H-2A must first show that no American wants the job — recruiting job applicants through ads in newspapers and public places. They’re also required to cover employees’ transportation, food and housing costs and pay a government-set wage: $12 an hour.
The percentage of those who are undocumented is vanishingly small, farmers recently told the Maine Sunday Telegram. The H-2A requirements weed out would-be scofflaws. So does the U.S. Labor Department, which regularly visits farms to review paperwork, and the E-verify system, a federal database that enables employers to check whether job applicants are authorized to work here.
The guest worker system is not without problems. Farmers feel that it’s expensive and cumbersome; farmworker advocates say that it unfairly ties workers to the employer that brought them to the U.S. Both sides backed the H-2A reforms in the immigration overhaul package that passed the Senate in 2013: That legislation would have abolished H-2A, put in place more flexible visas and given farmworkers a path to citizenship.
But that bill ultimately died in the House — and our country has since embraced an enforcement-centered policy that’s ushering in not change, but panic. The “build that wall” rhetoric began during the presidential campaign. Then came the election and President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order barring new visas for citizens of some majority-Muslim nations. Sweeping U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, ostensibly aimed at catching criminal immigrants, have resulted as well in the arrest of people who have no criminal record but are suspected of being here illegally.
None of this creates a welcoming atmosphere. And guest workers from Mexico, Jamaica and Central America likely are wondering whether they’ll be targets for overzealous immigration enforcement when they get to Maine, where they won’t be able to blend in with the overwhelmingly white population.
Though Donald Trump promised that his election would be good for business, his administration is pushing policies that won’t work for those who grow and harvest our food. It will be up to our elected representatives in Washington to see that we get immigration reforms that benefit both farmers and farmworkers.