From WatertownDailyTimes.com, Sarah Haase, Times Staff Writer, 1 May 2011.
DAILY CONTACT WITH MEN: Local ministers provide information, comfort to jailed farm employees, families
The eight illegal aliens who were rounded up recently by federal agents on a Smithville farm each likely paid at least $6,000 to smuggling cartels to sneak into the U.S. to find a job, according to a minister who is in daily contact with some of the men being held at a jail in Cayuga County.
The Rev. Paul D. Reynoso, pastor of the Assembly of Christian Churches, Fulton, and Regina M. Velez, pastor of Nueva Vida Iglesia Cristiana, Watertown, said they have known the men for years and have been in contact with both them and their families throughout their imprisonment.
The Rev. Mr. Reynoso said once they have provided information for the criminal case against John Barney, the co-owner of Butterville Farm in Smithville, the men will be deported to Guatemala.
The federal investigation began after Porfirio Lopez, 46, died March 20 in an apparent fall from a fence at the farm. Mr. Barney later was charged with knowingly hiring illegal aliens.
The Rev. Mr. Reynoso said Mr. Lopez’s son is not in jail, but is staying with the church in Fulton. He did not provide details, but said the son not being jailed has something to do with the death. Information about the other two men was not available, he said, because they could be younger than 18 years of age.
“They can’t be processed by immigration until the federal marshals are done with them,” the Rev. Mr. Reynoso said. “They haven’t been charged with anything but they are still being held. If they are just witnesses, why are they being held? We don’t really understand how this whole process works.”
“They call every day,” Ms. Velez said. “They call for comfort and they want to know what is going on. They are being held together, so that is good, but they have no communication with their families in Guatemala. Their families call me, too. They want to know how they can help. They ask, do they need to send fine money? It’s very frustrating to have to tell both of them that I don’t know what’s going on.”
The Rev. Mr. Reynoso said he has been asked to translate for the men’s defense attorney. He provides more for the men than just translation and spiritual help, though. He can relate to what they are going through because he made a similar trip into the United States as an illegal alien two decades ago.
But today, the criminal element that controls the drugs and human trafficking in Mexican border towns makes such trips far more dangerous.
“It’s a horror story, really,” the Rev. Mr. Reynoso said.
FAMILIES THREATENED BACK HOME
Ms. Velez and her children came to America from Puerto Rico 15 years ago and went through the legal process to live here openly.
The Rev. Mr. Reynoso, however, is from Cuilco, Guatemala, the same city the Butterville Farm detainees are from. In the mid-1990s, he became a permanent resident of the country, and in 2008, he became a legal citizen, he said.
The Rev. Mr. Reynoso said the journey taken by the eight farmworkers is one that many people from his city try to replicate.
“When I came it wasn’t as dangerous. The criminal end of it wasn’t there,” he said. “Mexico wasn’t dangerous then. You know how things are in Mexico. There are cartels, different groups, that kidnap and kill. The cartels have taken over the borders. I hear from a lot of people that there are many missing people who have tried to make it to Arizona or California. They have to pay someone to get them across the borders. Depending on how far you go, it can cost lots of money.”
Getting from Guatemala to Watertown can cost between $6,000 and $10,000, the Rev. Mr. Reynoso said.
“You don’t know who is honest or who you can trust, but you have to put your trust in someone,” he said. “Everyone only uses nicknames. That’s how they go about knowing each other, but it is always a risk. Just like people battle for drugs, they battle for the people trying to make it across the border.”
The Rev. Mr. Reynoso said most people borrow money from the smuggling cartels that promise to get them here. There are repercussions for the family back home if the money is not paid back.
Ms. Velez said a church member came to her because his family and his land were being threatened because he owed so much money. She said he told her that parts of his land were being taken and he was worried for the safety of his mother.
“It’s heartbreaking what these people go through. It really is,” she said.
The Rev. Mr. Reynoso said curiosity led him to sneak into America, but for most people the reason is simple economics.
“I guess it’s the American dream that draws them here,” he said, “that decision to better themselves.”
‘FARMERS HAVE A NEED’ FOR HELP
Ms. Velez has started hosting a Sunday evening service for Hispanics because of the influx of farmworkers in the north country.
“The service is done specifically for them because that is when they are done with work,” she said. “We’ve been seeing quite a lot of guys who work on the farms around here, and whatever we can do to help, we do. Some of them are looking for spirituality, and we are here for them.”
Ms. Velez said the numbers at her Sunday night services have decreased since the incident at Butterville Farm.
“They are to scared to leave their homes now,” she said. “It is like slavery with a paycheck.”
Hispanic workers are willing to fill the void that Americans are leaving. If there was a way for Hispanics to work on a farm freely and with no fear of being taken away, they would willingly follow the protocol, the Rev. Mr. Reynoso said.
“Farmers have a need, that’s the reality of it,” Ms. Velez said. “My kids are not going to work at the farm. They just won’t do it. These people are just here to work. America is supposed to be the country that helps everybody, but let’s do it in a way where everyone benefits. They are illegal, I understand that, but they are not criminals. Who is going to do these jobs? They are so grateful for being able to work.”
And the farmers are grateful that the Hispanics want to work.
“I have met the Barneys and they are some of the nicest people I have met in the farming industry,” the Rev. Mr. Reynoso said. “They understand and appreciate the guys. Both the farmers and the guys work hand in hand, in my opinion. If the government came up with a system for this farm industry, it would solve the problem.”
Both Ms. Velez and the Rev. Mr. Reynoso said some sort of immigration reform needs to be enacted. By doing so, both farmers and immigrants looking for work will be satisfied.
“I don’t see the problem the government is trying to fix,” the Rev. Mr. Reynoso said. “They are creating a problem in the industry. Can you imagine the farms of New York going out of business? We’d have to import our milk from California or Canada. We’d be paying $6 or $7 (a gallon) for milk.”
He said elected leaders must do something.
“They are the ones that can make the difference,” he said. “I’d love the opportunity to sit down with one of the senators. I would suggest giving anyone working in the farm industry, give them legal status while they are doing the jobs. Not too many Americans want to or are willing to do it.”
Ms. Velez said she is not trying to force immigration reform, but since Hispanics are coming here, why not create a legal avenue for that to happen?
“There is a need to do something that is right,” she said. “Owners are in need of workers and there are workers here for them. It’s really sad what everybody is going through. It’s a small compromise. If you weigh it, it’s a matter of being practical and being human about it. There’s no oil in Guatemala, but there are people. Those people are the machines that help keep the farms going.”