Migrant Workers in the North Country: Heightened Border Security, Heightened Invisibility


Since 9/11 Border Patrol regulations have been heightened significantly, which has placed the migrant workers in an increasingly vulnerable situation at the northern border. In 2001 there were about 340 Border Patrol agents in the US with 37 in NY; however, in 2014 there were 2,094 agents with 288 in NY. As result of such high border security, which I have witnessed myself this summer driving around the North Country, these migrant communities have become increasingly invisible, especially dairy farm workers because the majority are undocumented due to the lack of a visa program available for year-round workers.

Most of workers rarely leave the farm and only do so to buy groceries at Walmart or to seek medical attention if necessary. A few workers mentioned that a taxi costs around $50 for these trips. Thus, the majority of the workers choose to stay on the farm and have their food delivered by the domestic employees on the farm. Last week, one of the workers mentioned that he had not left the farm in three years. These rare (and often expensive) opportunities to leave the farm further enhance the invisibility and isolation that the workers are faced with in this region. The former language interpreter with whom I spoke (see my previous article) mentioned that there have been cases on these farms of workers having mental breakdowns and psychological instability due to these conditions.

In some of my conversations I inquired into whether there has been an increase or decrease in the number of migrant workers in this region within the last decade or two, and due to the discreet nature of the situation it is difficult to determine such trends. However, according to a former employee at the Worker Justice Center of Central NY (WJCNY), based on the 2012 census it is estimated that there are roughly 60,000-100,000 migrant workers in NY State but only roughly 2,500 involved in the H-2A visa program. This exhibits the high rate of undocumented migrant workers in this region. As I have noted previously, most NY State residents are entirely unaware of the existence of these workers. Furthermore, the majority of the migrant workers in the North Country, especially around Canton, are mostly men who have migrated by themselves rather than with families. This has further contributed to the invisibility of these migrant communities and their lack of integration into the mainstream society of the North Country because there are not any children of the migrant workers attending the local schools. 

Furthermore, my conversation with the former employee of the WJCNY introduced me to some of the issues of legal aid and funding for migrant workers. Although there is a high risk for injury as well as fatality in dairy farm work, federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation does not offer legal aid and services to undocumented workers. Thus organizations such as the WJCNY play a crucial role in working to provide legal aid and social services to these workers. The Department of Justice just recently approved $50 million in funding that will go towards grants for these organizations. Although these organizations have been able to provide some legal and social services to undocumented workers, the government has provided some very basic education and health programs in order to maintain the status quo of the situation, due to the necessity of this cheap labor to support the dairy industry. However, these resources remain very limited with minimal worker advocacy in order to minimize any threat to or questioning of the employer and the business. The demand for cheap labor on these farms is so high that although border security has become increasingly vigilant, there appears to be an unspoken agreement between the government and the dairy industry; as long as the workers remain on the farm solely to work with few other opportunities or benefits, this system will keep reproducing itself for the benefit of the dairy industry and local economy while these workers will continue to remain invisible.

I will be continuing to investigate this issue, especially the invisibility of these migrant communities in the North Country, over the next several months. In my next post I will be discussing the macro migration patterns and trends between the US and Mexico by analyzing the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on various regions of Mexico and the implications this legislation has had on migration patterns.

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