By Claire Poole
One evening recently, I was given an opportunity to eat supper with three migrant workers here on the Shore. These young men (thoughtful, fun, and well-spoken) come on what are called H-2A visas. These visas are granted only after those same jobs have been offered to American workers. That’s mostly a formality since Americans who want to take those jobs are rare indeed.
The work they come to do is essential. Without our agricultural workers, produce shelves in American supermarkets would look rather empty. And another fact: These guest workers pay both federal and state income tax. (That one I did not realize — lifelong learning is a wonderful thing.)
Hugo and Ivar (not their real names) come from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Hugo is from a small fishing village surrounded by hills where he works as an agricultural laborer. Ivar works on his small farm in a village high up in the hills with a gorgeous view of the ocean. Juan (again, not his real name) comes from a village in the state of Veracruz where he works as a furniture maker. Juan is also a bit of an environmentalist. A lot of logging happens where he lives and he is both sad and concerned because so many of the trees are being cut down. All three have wives and small children whom they miss terribly. Missing their families is clearly the most difficult part of this experience for them.
They also share concerns about their extended families and friends they have left behind in their villages. The COVID-19 pandemic has now reached remote parts of Mexico and their villages are quite far from medical care. They don’t know who might be dead when they return home.
So why do they come? That’s easy. The money is far more than they could ever make in Mexico. On a good day, workers in the fields here can earn $100 or more. Maybe even as much as $150. At home, they could earn only about $7 per day. It’s understandably competitive to be chosen to receive the H-2A visa and work in the States. It’s also very competitive once they get here. Only the highest-producing workers will be invited back next year.
To be one of those highest-producing workers is pretty grueling. I think we all know what the heat and humidity are like on the Shore in the summer. Imagine working hard in that kind of heat with only a half-hour break. Workers are expected to meet production quotas of 20 good-sized buckets, say, of tomatoes, every hour. That’s one every three minutes all day long. When they finish a bucket, they run as quickly as they can to the truck where they dump it and refill the next one. You can imagine how easy it might be to sprain an ankle, especially when the ground is still muddy. Then, hot and tired at the end of the day, they return to their camps where they live in cinder block structures. None of them have transportation outside of the camp buses which take them – just once a week – to Walmart. Otherwise, when they’re not in the fields, they’re in the camps. This is no vacation.
Another daily challenge is that, while the money is worth it, they don’t get the opportunity to work every day. Not if it’s raining. Not if there’s no work to be done. Not if they are hurt. Not if faster workers are chosen instead of you (even when you always meet your quotas). No work, no pay.
So where are the bright spots?
One interesting upside is that this experience has taught each of these loving husbands and hard workers to value the women in their lives even more than they had before. At home, for many, their wives do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Now they have to do all of that themselves. As a result, their respect for the work of their wives and mothers has shot way up.
They talk to their families every day – and discussion of recipes is a regular part of the conversations. (Hugo says: “even the rocks my mother makes taste delicious.”) But there’s a bittersweet edge to those calls. It’s a reminder of how far away their families are. Ivar, who left a 3-month-old son to come here says hearing his children in the background of the call hurts his heart. Ivar also quips that he had to come here to pay for diapers.
The second thing they all agree on as an upside are the friendships they make and the unity they feel among the workers. No matter what state they come from in Mexico, they create a kind of family for themselves in the camps. Those few who have had the opportunity to meet friendly folks from the Eastern Shore also deeply appreciate those relationships.
Unfortunately, friendly Shore folks feel few and far between to them. Too often it seems that people “look down on them” or are suspicious. Since they have little English (and I have far less Spanish), people often get impatient with them in stores. Imagine how your son or grandson might feel in a foreign country if situations were reversed.
When I asked what they would like Eastern Shore people to understand about them, they were unanimous in their response. “We want them to know that we are not bad people. We come here to do hard, honest work that Americans don’t want to do anymore. We would like them to understand how hard the work is and that we come to give as well as to receive.”
There are a lot of thorny issues bound up in the immigration debate. But this is not one of them. This one is simple. Young men are coming up from Mexico and other parts of Central America — at our invitation — to do essential work that we ourselves no longer wish to do. They work extremely hard in difficult conditions and miss their families constantly.
So the next time you pass their bus on the highway, maybe whisper a little prayer for their safety and for their families. If you see them at Walmart, maybe give them a smile, say hi, or even venture an “Hola!”
Claire Poole lives in Melfa and volunteers with the Legal Aid Justice Center, headquartered in Richmond, with staff and volunteers in several Virginia communities including the Eastern Shore.