KEENE VALLEY -?A large percentage of the farm workers who harvest New York state's apples, potatoes, onions, and other fruits and vegetables are immigrants working long hours with no overtime pay, few benefits, low salaries, often substandard housing, and no right to collective bargaining, as those rights fought for over 50 years ago in California by Cesar Chavez were excluded from being applied here. Illegal immigrants comprise approximately five percent of this workforce.
"After I Pick the Fruit: The Lives of Migrant Women" is a documentary filmed by Nancy Ghertner that follows five immigrant women and their families over a ten-year period as they harvest apples in New York state. Screened at the Keene Valley Public Library on Monday, viewers see the migrants as people working hard to earn money to support their families, including some back home, and send their children to school in hopes they will have a better life. We see them at work and play, how they become members of their community, and highly valued by the farmer's who employ them, as few Americans are willing to take on such arduous tasks.
We learn the undocumented workers, and to a great extent the farmers who employ them, live in fear of the Border Patrol's ICE division that has been increasingly aggressive in rooting out and deporting the illegal immigrants, sometimes as they leave Sunday mass with their families, or by profiling Latino children, watching their school bus routes, and confronting parents who meet them or later once they have followed the children home.
Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives! And Barrie Gewanter (Photo by Naj Wikoff)
According to Barrie Gewanter, director of Central NY Chapter of the NY Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who brought the film to the Library, under presidents Bush and Obama, ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the US Customs and Border Protection, whose responsibility is to root out immigrants with criminal backgrounds, has increasingly focused on removing any undocumented immigrant, males especially, which is wrecking havoc on the farms and tearing families apart.
"It is really hard work and it is really quite specialized," said filmmaker Nancy Ghertner. "What the farmers in this area have discovered is that the best laborers are people from the more rural areas in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. They understand it is a long day. They understand the nature of that kind of work. Where are you going to find people like that in the United States?"
"One orchard I visited yesterday had a crew of 70 and he is a small 400-acre farm, which is big for around Sodus. Another had a crew of 25 Jamaicans, 35 Mexicans, that is zero Americans picking on farms here. In Maine when I was with blueberry workers I found only a few locals willing to come out and they because it is a tradition and a short season. In some areas of the United States people move from agricultural work to fisheries to wreath-making for the Christmas season, it is more a culture of seasonal work, which you might find in the Adirondacks."
"What surprised me was how eager the immigrant women were to tell their story," continued Ghertner. "I was so welcomed into their lives. At first, they welcomed my interest of their work, they were gratified that a person from the community came out and took an interest in what they were doing. As their lives unfolded, their crisis began with the crackdown on immigration, which took place in about the middle of the filming. They began to realize that their stories were important."
"The other surprise, I am back out now researching the blueberry industry, is that I learned that in just three years since the first film came out there has been big changes in the work force, but not in the work and not in the oppression. They are different people but they are doing the same thing. There is nothing status quo about agriculture workers. We always need them. Some of them are always moving up into a new line of work so we always need new low level workers, low level in terms of pay and experience, and as they gain experience we need more, so it is never ending."
"I would like people to just meet an immigrant and see them on their own terms," said Ghertner. "I'd like people to see the level of activities and the places where their lives connect with the same things we have concerns for; education for our children, celebrating family, church, daily work, the joy of making a meal. I think when we classify them as undocumented aliens it takes away their humanity. In this film we want the viewer to feel the humanity of these people who are here, who are participating in our economy, and who are becoming members of our community."
After the screening Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives! and Barrie Gewanter led a spirited discussion with the audience about issues raised, the importance of immigrant labor to the economic vitality of our region particularly as part of the dairy industry, and what people can do to lobby Congressman Bill Owens to move the Immigration Bill approved by the Senate to the floor of the House for a vote.
"I didn't realize that many of the workers have very good relations with their bosses," said Monique Weston. "They don't make much money, but they do what they can to support their families back home."
"The farm industry relies on these people," said Gewanter. "The Border Patrol is picking up people who are members of families, who have jobs milking cows, picking apples, people that studies have shown have no criminal histories. You are told it's about criminal aliens and it is not."
For more information about future screenings, where to find more information, and action steps one can take go to www.afteripickthefruit.com.