The Farmer and the Worker: An Almost-Told Story
The Immigrant Magazine, The Immigrant Experience, Donusia Lipinski
On any given day, I sit across from people who are afraid to be in my office. I see their fear in tightly folded hands, in eyes that don’t quite meet mine. I hear it in both what they say and what they don’t say, in the pauses as they tell their stories. They are afraid that talking to me will open a door they are powerless to close again, and they will be forced out that door to their country of origin, where they may not see their wives, husbands, or children for up to 10 years. But they need help, so undocumented immigrants walk with their fear through my door.
I have been an immigration lawyer for more than 25 years, and I have never seen more fear than I do today. Despite the comfortable, homey atmosphere in my office, many worry that it may not be a safe place—that I may even be a setup, no different than a trap in the woods. Often, they come with their employers, because they feel protected in their company. More often, they don’t come at all.
In one consultation, I met with a farmer and his worker. The worker had been an instrumental part of the farmer’s business for more than 10 years, and the farmer considered him part of his family. The closeness of their relationship is something I find more and more as I work in the northern Virginia area. In this consultation, I saw a deep, earned trust between the two men—the farmer, who spoke English in a deep country drawl, and the worker, a gentle, soft-spoken man who communicated in Spanish (though he spoke English well) and deferred to his employer with implicit respect.
The worker’s story reminded me of many others I’d heard. My heart broke as I thought about what it must be like for mothers to say good-bye to their sons and daughters, possibly never to see them again. I thought about the courage, determination, and character of anyone who would leave their own home as young as 14 years old, walking many miles to enter completely unfamiliar territory. Sometimes children leave because a parent or older sibling has died and they must take on the role of breadwinner. Sometimes there i
sn’t enough food to eat or money to pay for medicine a sick mother or sibling might need. Many times they are leaving a one-room house with a tin roof where simple things, such as writing utensils, are joyful commodities. Many have long since stopped attending school in order to help parents feed and clothe younger children.
Back when the worker entered the U.S., many individuals paid between $2,000 and $2,500 to a “coyote,” or the person who would smuggle them in. Of course, they would have preferred entering through a legal channel, but current immigration laws don’t offer a temporary work visa for employers who need year-round workers in occupations requiring less than two years experience and little or no training. (We call these “essential workers,” or those who do the jobs Americans don’t want but which are essential to our economy.) Crossing the border is tantamount to spending an entire family’s savings—money that is simply lost if the immigrants are detained by Border Control and sent home. It may take a full year to save that money again.
Those in their teen years work and sleep where they can. Sometimes they are lucky, like the man in my office, who eventually found a good farmer—one with integrity, who saw the worker as a human being who also had integrity—and become employed. Before April 30, 2001, there may have been a way for some employers to file applications for workers and eventually help them achieve lawful status. In this case, however, the process wasn’t available, so the farmer decided to step in on his employee’s behalf: he filed an application to get the worker a green card on the basis of employment.
The rest of the process was daunting—years of filing more paperwork and documentation, advertising in newspapers only to prove there was no qualified labor in the U.S., that the worker met minimum requirements, and that the farmer could pay the prevailing wage. He finally received certification from the Department of Labor in 2007 and waited to hear about the next steps. What he didn’t realize was that the filing procedures had changed, and he missed a filing deadline with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service. All the work he’d done for over five years was lost. Even worse for the kind farmer and his loyal employee, there was no longer a way for the employee to get legal status, barring changes in the law. Even if there were a legal channel under today’s laws, he would have to wait outside the U.S. for at least 10 years, absent an approved waiver, before he could reenter—leaving his wife to support their children and their children to grow up without a father.
“Why is this so difficult?” the farmer asked me, frustrated. “He’s a good person, and I proved that I need him. But immigration laws are so complicated. What can we do?”
What can we do? It’s a question I hear often, from immigrants, from their spouses, from their employers—all seeking a way for good people to emerge from the shadows. So what can we do?
I have been doing advocacy work locally and nationally for a long time. None of our efforts have been very successful. On one hand, we have increased understanding, we have informed, we have shared stories of the human struggle regarding outdated laws. On the other, we have called each other names—racists, communists, open border advocates, liberals, leftists . . . and the negativity begets more negativity. Most of all, it creates fear—debilitating fear—on both sides of the proverbial fence.
Thanks to an “angel” donation, I recently had the opportunity to work with Round Table Companies, a storytelling company, to share the story of the farmer and his worker. We envisioned humanizing their struggle, going inside the worker’s journey from leaving home and family to building a new home and family. We anticipated painting a picture of the sturdy, loyal relationship that developed between him and the farmer—a relationship that many undocumented workers share with their employers—in an effort to show that immigrants are not to be feared or hated; rather, they should be admired for the gifts and contributions they bring to this country. Finally, we expected to share the frustration that came with the farmer’s unsuccessful efforts on the worker’ behalf . . . and examine why our immigration laws are actually failing people.
But, after a long process of fits and starts, confidentiality agreements and safety assurances, the farmer stopped returning my calls. My emails went unanswered. What started as requests on my end turned into long, earnest pleas without a response. Why did the farmer turn away? I believe it has to do with fear. With racial profiling a hot topic in the news, many undocumented immigrants fear being stopped as they grocery shop or take their children to the doctor; employers fear “retaliation” by the U.S. government if they are identified. Sharing their story in an article was simply too terrifying a risk, even with the farmer’s heartfelt question of “What can we do?”
This is what
we can do: we can listen to each other. We can respect one another’s points of view, even if they seen inconceivable. Otherwise, we just continue marginalizing—a shame when we all ultimately want the same thing. We want families to stay together; we want employers to pay all workers a fair wage; we want to offer jobs to U.S. workers, and when employers cannot find them, we want them to have a way to hire foreign employees.
So how do we achieve our goals? Ultimately, solutions lie in becoming heart-centered, connected. We need to see people as people, not concepts, not as a bunch of letters that form words to which we attribute so much power. Human beings are not “aliens.” They aren’t “legals” or “illegals.” They are beings, each with a purpose here and a contribution to make. Only by seeing that—not the race, the politics, or the controversy—will we achieve what we all desire: a world without fear.
Fortunately, I hear wonderful, heart-warming stories from individuals from all walks of life that affirm for me that the shift is happening; that positive change is slowly taking root as more and more people become heart-centered and see foreign nationals as ‘beings’ first, rather than as the names we attach to their status.
In 2006, she received the Colorado Lifetime Achievement Award for her dedication, advocacy, and work on behalf of immigrants. Donusia was also the recipient of the 2004 National AILA Advocacy award for her advocacy efforts on behalf of essential workers In 2000, she was the recipient of AILA President’s award for her work on immigration reform. Donusia served two-three year terms on the National Board of Governors for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She was also elected to serve as the Chairperson for the Colorado Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and on Colorado’s Executive Committee.