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Michigan prides itself on its agriculture, and we should.We are the most agriculturally diverse state, behind only California. And after manufacturing, agriculture is the state’s largest industry.But what goes into bringing the fruits and vegetables we eat to our tables? Our documentary "Voices from the Fields" tells the stories of the migrant workers in Michigan.

How immigration changes will impact migrant workers

Emily Fox
Michigan Radio
Guest workers and local teens detassel corn in southwest Michigan.

This week I’m bringing you segments from my documentary, Voices from the Fields," a story of migrant workers in Michigan.

More than halfof the roughly 2 million farm workers in the U.S. are undocumented.

Of those 2 million, 94,000 migrant workers and their families live and work in Michigan. And they have a lot at stake when it comes to U.S. immigration policy.

Back in June, the U.S. Senate passed animmigration billthat would provide a path to citizenship for farm workers, but now the immigration debate lies in the hands of the U.S. House – which has its own ideas, and they’re very different from the Senate’s.

For one thing, the House plan does not include a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Instead, it would expand the guest worker program

It’s called H2A. That’s the name of the visa under which foreign workers can come to the U.S. to do agricultural work. They work for a short period of time, then they’re sent back home.  Basically, the idea is to make sure crops don’t rot in the fields.

Companies have to make the case that there’s a labor shortage where the work needs to be done, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

On a rainy Friday morning in a corn field in southwest Michigan, I visited a crew of teenagers at work during their summer job. Small groups of teens walk down the rows of corn ripping the tassels off the tips of the corn stalks as they go. They’re getting slapped by wet corn husks. Some kids stop to dump out the water from their boots. Some are joking and laughing as they work. Others complain because they don’t have raincoats and are working in soaking wet T-shirts.

These are local kids whose summer job of “detasseling” corn helps create hybrid seed corn for the Pioneer seed company.

Tim Fleck is the crew leader of these teens and he’s been in the corn detasseling business for 30 years.

“When we were younger, we detasseled ourselves. It’s just a great opportunity for kids to earn a few dollars in the summer time,” Fleck says.

Fleck works for the Pioneer Seed office in Constantine, Michigan. The office hires 3,400 teenagers in the area during the summer to do this work, and he says he doesn’t think there’s a shortage of kids willing to do it.

“I would have to say the trend over the last 2-3 years has been more workers,” Fleck says.  

But it’s not just teenagers who work these fields, adults do, too, and that’s where things get a little complicated.

The national Pioneer seed office says there was a shortage of adults from the area who could work these fields this summer, so they worked through a contractor who applied to the federal government to bring in 120 guest workers through the H2A program.

Now, remember -- in order to get the OK to bring in foreign workers, there has to be a labor shortage.

Pioneer says there was. Tom Thornburg, an attorney with Farm Worker Legal Services in Kalamazoo says there was not.

“We found by such a simple Google search,an article from the Kalamazoo Gazette from February that says there is 3,500 people in this area that do detasseling. That there’s one recruiter that went out of business this year and had a clientele of 250 ... those people needed to be placed,” Thornburg says.

Thornburg was in communication with the workforce development agency known as Michigan Works, and they were able to find U.S. residents who were willing to do the work.

“Low and behold, they found 120 workers,” Thornburg says.

That’s 120 domestic workers. That’s the same number of people Pioneer said it needed to finish the field work, but the H2A work order went forward anyway. 

So here’s what happened next, according to several people’s accounts:

The contractor Pioneer hired to bring in the foreign workers set July 5th as the first day of work.  July 5th, the day after Independence Day, was a Friday. It was a day many people took off so they could have a long holiday weekend. Some farm worker advocates argue this was a deliberate tactic to discourage local workers from showing up to the job.

Only 45 out of the 120 U.S. workers showed up that first day.

And after the first week?

“I can tell you that maybe five of them were left,” says Angelica Alvarez. She’s a U.S. citizen and a migrant worker from Texas. She traveled with five of her family members from Texas to work in the fields near Constantine, in southwest Michigan.

Alvarez says, “When we first got here, our crew leader told us that all of the African Americans and all of the whites that were working there were probably going to be gone by the first week or so.”

Alvarez says eventually all of the local workers left. In some cases they left because their contract said they didn’t have to work more than six hours a day. Alvarez says she remembers working up to 16 hours in one day.

But she says some of the local workers left after they were monitored more closely in the fields compared to the H2A workers. She says basically, they were forced off the job.

“When we get fired there is pretty much more hours and more work for them, more acres. I think they just make more money off the H2A workers because honestly they work really fast. They might leave tassels behind but they work hard and they pretty much run through the fields,” Alvarez says.

The crew leader and his supervisor did not return multiple requests for an interview.

The U.S. House plan to expand the H2A program would allow for an additional half million guest workers to come to the U.S. each year.

But critics see lots of problems with the idea.

Tom Thornburg from Farm Worker Legal Services says expanding the guest worker program would depress wages for farm workers. He says it’s basic economics: more workers competing for the same number of jobs.

“And the current, unauthorized one million [farm workers] are going to be at the bottom of the list because they are not going to be authorized,” he says.

And there areother problems with the House plan, Thornburg says.

The bill would end the requirement that employers hire any U.S. worker who applies over a foreign worker during the first half of the season.

There would be less government oversight, so it would be harder to find out whether a domestic labor shortage exists.  That could make it even harder for U.S. workers to get hired, and the bill would also get rid of some of the current regulations and protections for guest workers. Those mandates include providing housing or access to legal aid programs.

Thornburg says that would hurt both domestic and foreign workers.

“This is a very exploitable workforce,” Thornburg says. “The foreign guest workers are attached to an employer for a period of their work in their stay in the United States. If they were to complain about anything and be fired, they would be going home.”

But backers of the House plan say expanding the guest worker program will be better for farmers. They say the agricultural labor pool would dry up if the 1-2 million undocumented farm workers were able to become citizens, and get better jobs.

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