MAXWELL:  Migrant workers live in dread

10/18/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Beverly Coyle, author of the acclaimed novels The Kneeling Bus and In Troubled Waters, and I came here as part of a collaborative writing project for the Florida Humanities Council.

This being her first trip to the area, Beverly was immediately struck by the sense of fear among the Latin American farm workers we encountered, the issue to which I will return shortly.

I spent much of my childhood in Crescent City, a small town in southern Putnam County, less than 50 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. During the 1950s and early 1960s, citrus-picking and fern-cutting were the major sources of income for most non-whites. About half of the laborers in both industries were local blacks. The others were mostly black migrant farm workers from Georgia, the Carolinas, South Florida and the Lake Okeechobee region. A few were native West Indians who had followed their crew chiefs from Belle Glade.

After the freezes of the 1980s decimated citrus, fern became, and remains, the main cash crop. Grown in two varieties, leatherleaf and plumosa, fern is Florida’s major cut foliage crop. Florists use the leafy greens mainly as background.

The demographics of the fern cutters have radically changed since my childhood, and with those changes have come police state tactics: No longer black and American, the overwhelming majority of the workers are non-black Hispanics who speak little or no English. No one has an accurate count of how many are undocumented, but many locals and most outsiders are apt to think that the average cutter _ brown-skinned and small in stature _ is here illegally.

This single impression, born of stereotypes, lies at the heart of the fear among the cutters that Beverly detected as we visited ferneries and drove past the shacks and trailers where the workers live.

Beverly wanted to photograph the cutters as they stooped inside the canopied gardens snipping the leafy plants. I advised her not to because most of the workers, many having recently been rousted by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, are justifiably camera-shy and afraid of strangers.

Several months earlier, INS agents, accompanied by sheriff’s deputies and dogs, had carried out nocturnal raids in at least two local Hispanic neighborhoods. The doors to some homes were kicked in, belongings were thrown to the floor, and at least three dozen people were arrested.

Dolores Valdez, whose husband was out of town on the night of one raid, was in the family’s two-room shack with her three children, in an unincorporated part of the county, when INS agents forced their way through the door. Although she produced papers proving that she and husband were legal residents, the agents shouted demands and ransacked the dwelling.

Her neighbors to the east, a Mexican couple with two children, ran into the pineland and stayed there for nearly two weeks. Valdez and her husband sneaked the family food and water. A young Honduran man, who could not produce proper papers, was punched in the face, handcuffed and thrown to the floor. A few families went further underground, leaving the area altogether.

Most county leaders disapprove of such abuse but are powerless to do anything about it. One elected official, who, like many farm workers, was afraid to let his name be used for publication, said, “These people come to our country and do the kind of work the rest of us won’t do for the pay, and the INS treats them worse than they treat dogs. They have constitutional rights, too. If they had big-time lawyers and made campaign contributions, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen to them.”

Crescent City is not the only Florida town where INS goons have terrorized farm workers. In Miami, agents raided the First Paragon Flower Company in an attempt to inspect the workers’ immigration documents. Agents yelled at workers, most of them Hispanic, shoved them and beat them. They were ordered to sit on a wet floor in cold storage area. Agents and some of the workers traded blows after a pregnant woman fainted.

These and other actions are the result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that Congress passed two years ago. Instead of helping matters, however, these gestapo-like tactics are having a “devastating impact” on immigrant workplaces and communities, according to a study by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights .

Cheryl Little, director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, told the St. Petersburg Times that the INS has become the largest federal department in the U.S. that is authorized to bear arms and make arrests. “That’s pretty alarming,” she said. “They have the right to detain, but they cannot detain people unless they have good reason, and then they must also respect people’s human rights.”

I spent many years in Florida’s fern basket, and I know for a fact that the INS does not respect the human rights of the cutters. Even those who are undocumented _ who do the low-paying, back-breaking work that most Americans refuse to do _ have human rights. Parents, for example, should not be so afraid of government officials that they run off into the woods with their children.

This kind of terror should not exist anywhere in America. We should be teaching other nations how to treat immigrants and refugees. Instead, we are being cited by international human rights groups for creating a shadow world, where brutalizing migrant farm workers and humiliating their families is the norm, where people with brown skin, who wear work clothes and who speak a different language, are automatically seen as aliens.

To their credit, INS officials acknowledged that, following investigations, agents found guilty of abusing farm workers have been disciplined. Let us hope so.