Topic: Immigrant Farmworkers in Rural Communities: Approaches to Diminish Social, Linguistic and Economic Isolation
Historically, migrant workers have travelled to farming communities across the globe to labor in fresh fruit and vegetable harvests. Typically migrants remain for short periods of time to carry out tasks such as pruning, weeding, and harvesting, that must be done by hand. Local workers are often not interested in short term employment, nor able to withstand the physical demands of stoop labor, climbing ladders, carrying heavy sacks filled with produce or working in inclement weather. Farm work is the third most dangerous occupation in the US due to the inherent dangers of the work, and the risks associated with exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides. Increasingly, immigrant workers are doing these low paying jobs, and remain at the margins of rural society.
This paper draws from over 250 in-depth ethnographic interviews, and focus group discussions with an additional 200 immigrant farmworkers, conducted over the past decade throughout rural New York State. Interviews with unauthorized workers from Mexico and Guatemala examine their motivations for leaving their places of origin, their migration experiences, relationships in their new communities, and plans for the future. Focus group discussions extensively examine immigrants’ motivations to stay or leave rural upstate areas. Farmworker interviews are complemented with information gathered from educators, health practitioners, community leaders, policy makers, and other service providers in rural upstate NY, about how these communities have changed to accommodate immigrant workers.
These case studies provide rich detail about how immigrant workers and rural residents perceive socio-spatial inequalities in rural communities, and how the receiving communities are changing to accommodate the needs of this new population. Since 2000 approximately two-thirds of NY’s farmworker population have become year-round residents by securing employment in fruit and vegetable packing houses and processing plants in off-harvest months, or year-round work on dairy farms. Grounded in the realities of the living and working conditions of farmworkers, this research provides important insights into the challenges immigrant farmworkers experience, how they succeed despite literacy, educational, or language limitations, and how mostly Caucasian rural communities accommodate the language, housing, and socio-cultural needs of new immigrants. This research also provides important insights on how national policy changes such as intensified immigration enforcement along the northern border, put immigrants and agricultural production in rural areas at risk. Moreover this paper provides insights into how rural residents in both sending and receiving communities can contribute to the well-being of immigrant workers.