Seasonal Labor Visa program changes the face of Southern Illinois agriculture

Seasonal Labor Visa program changes the face of Southern Illinois agriculture

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COBDEN — In 2006, after an understaffed harvest left too much of Jeff Flamm’s summer crop rotting on the vine, he turned to the H-2A visa program, which provides temporary visas to foreign laborers.

Flamm Orchards, which supplies both commercial vendors like Kroger and customers at their storefront on Old Highway 51, now employs 64 Mexican seasonal farm workers to pick his crop of peaches, apples, cucumbers, and other fruits and vegetables each year.

“No one wants to use H-2A. We do it out of necessity," Flamm said. The program places heavy demands on employers, who are the sole caretakers for their guest workers. As an employer of H-2A workers, Flamm must acquire and pay for their visas, pay for bus travel from Mexico to Cobden, and provide housing for all 64.

Per the program’s requirements, Flamm pays his workers the “prevailing wage” of $11.61 an hour, provides daily transportation to and from the job site, and submits to yearly inspections from the Illinois Health Department, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, the agency that administers the program.

But Flamm said the benefits far outweigh the costs.

“If you took away these 64 H-2A guys that do the picking, I wouldn’t have anyone else,” Flamm said. “If you don’t get the crops picked, you have nothing to sell.”

The program is on the upswing across the country. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, 204,577 workers came to the U.S. on temporary H-2A visas during the 2013 fiscal year, compared with just 183,860 in 2013, and only 14,094 in 2003.

In Illinois, H-2A is still putting down its roots. The 2013 fiscal year saw an increase to 584 H-2A workers from 477 the year before, many of them concentrated in Southern Illinois. Jerry and Lisa Thurston at Spring Valley Farm, in Pulaski, introduced the program this year, and are “so satisfied” with their laborers that they’re planning to plant a bigger crop next year, and are considering converting their packing operation to H-2A.

Flamm recruited many of his workers from the mountain village of Santa Cruz Tlaxcala, in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The first time he visited, Flamm said, the town didn’t have a single plumbed bathroom. But with the economic stimulus of 48 men sending money home from their work at Flamm’s, much has changed.

H-2A visa

Jeff Flamm, one of the owners of Flamm’s Orchard, near Cobden, laughs with Thelma Vicente, who works in the packing plant. Out of some 150 workers on the farm, Flamm estimates that about half have another family member working there. Thelma’s husband, Juan Vicente, supervises the pickers, and the couple have a daughter who also works in the plant.

“I figured up one year that the group of guys that came from that village sent home about $400,000 in one picking season,” Flamm said. “Now when you go down there, there’s cars in town and satellite dishes hanging from the houses."

Santiago Cardoza, 26, has worked at Flamm’s for the past five years. Every week, he estimates, he sends about $500 to his wife and two small children in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. With the money he earns, Cardoza said he wants to give his children a different kind of life.

“I want them to go to school, to study, and not to end up here like me, suffering,” Cardoza said.

Cardoza did not come alone. His sister Graciela works in the orchard’s bakery, and his nephew washes buckets for the pickers, and hunts with Jeff Flamm on the weekends. Both are U.S. citizens.

Flamm estimates that 50 percent of his workers have a family member who is employed on the farm, and that 90 percent of his pickers have returned from earlier years. This is largely a consequence of the program, as Flamm’s permanent workers and returnee H-2A pickers often recommend family members in Mexico for open positions on the H-2A crew.

“I’ve only got a handful of workers anymore that are true migrants,” Flamm said. Before he enrolled in the H-2A program, Flamm employed migrant workers, who traveled across the country following the harvest season to pick the crop. But with heightened vigilance at the border and thousands of deportations every month, many former migrant workers prefer to remain in their communities year-round.

As this diminished flow of migrant workers has been replaced by H-2A labor in Southern Illinois, much of the aid infrastructure that supported them in local communities has become unnecessary.

Less than a mile south of Flamm’s orchard lies the Union-Jackson Farmworkers’ Housing Association, a lodging camp of six, long, low-slung concrete buildings, thrust into a hillside. This year, for the first time in decades, the government-subsidized apartments, which were offered specifically to migrant families, are deserted.

Albert Turl, a member of the administrative board of the Association, said it closed the camp due to lack of demand among migrant workers and the challenges of obtaining funds to run the camp and bring leaky, sagging roofs and plumbing up to code.

H-2A visas

Salvador Murillo, caretaker of a housing camp run by the Union Jackson Farmworker Housing Association, shows an uninhabited apartment. The camp was closed this year due to “lack of demand” for migrant housing, and insufficient funding to make necessary repairs to the buildings, according to Albert Turl, a member of the administrative board of the Association. The camp offered subsidized housing to migrant farm workers during the harvest season.

H-2A workers are predominantly male, due to the physical demands of agricultural labor, and, unlike migrant workers, rarely bring their families with them to their work sites. Rather than staying in community housing, they live for free in the housing their bosses are required to provide, Turl explained.

“If we don’t have the camp full, the Department of Agriculture doesn’t pay its portion [subsidy] of the rent,” he said.

The camp’s closure may have further dissuaded some of the few remaining migrant agricultural laborers from coming to Illinois. Salvador Murillo, the caretaker of the Housing Association, said he’s received about 25 phone calls from single workers and migrant families looking for lodging to come work Southern Illinois’s fields. The calls came from as far as Alabama and Florida, and many said they had stayed at the camp in years past.

“We’re trying to get the finances arranged in order to sell it,” Turl said of the camp. “But I don’t know who would want to buy an old housing camp.”

As it turns out, Jeff Flamm has had his eye on the apartments for some time. With some repairs, the extra lodging would allow him to offer more H-2A visas and expand his operation.

Some folks in his community, Flamm acknowledged, worry that these seasonal workers are taking jobs that U.S. citizens could, and should occupy. But Flamm emphasized that few can withstand the physical challenges of the job. This year, he said, he’d had two Americans apply to pick fruit on his farm. Two months later, neither is still employed.

“It’s the people who don’t understand this business that criticize the concept,” Flamm said about H-2A. Its economic impact is “a ripple effect that goes way out. These 64 guys create 100 other jobs here on this farm.”

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