Student Action with Farmworkers advocates for N.C.'s migrants | News Feature | Indy Week
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Student Action with Farmworkers advocates for N.C.'s migrants 

Activists work on migrants' behalf in the fields and at the statehouse

SAF interns work on chants before the Smithfield protest. - PHOTO BY ALIX BLAIR

Willibardo and his family crossed America's southern border about 10 years ago. They moved around from place to place, following the crops as they ripened, until they settled in Greene County, N.C., in 2001. Now they live between fields of corn and yellowing tobacco in a wood-frame house—a shack, really—with the peeling white paint that seems to characterize the state's migrant housing. Bins of crushed beer cans mark the corners of the sagging structure like pillars.

When interns from Student Action with Farmworkers arrive one August evening, Willibardo and another worker, wearing jeans, T-shirts and the dirt from a day's labor, stand around a pickup truck drinking Bud Lights. The interns, Maribel Maldonado and Charlotte Sibley, and their hosts from the Greene County Health Center, Imelda Moye and John Riggs, set up shop: Riggs, a physician's assistant, whips out his blood pressure kit and Sibley her charts to record Willibardo's vitals. Maldonado prepares to translate, and Moye, an outreach worker with a quick smile, talks with whoever will listen.

Sun-baked, Willibardo sits on the bed of the truck for Riggs to take his blood pressure. "Presión está alta," Maldonado says, taking her cue from Riggs, who speaks little Spanish.

"¿Mucho?" Willibardo asks.

"Sí, mucho."

Maldonado tells Willibardo that his blood pressure is sky-high, and translates Riggs' instructions: Cut out the smoking, drinking and salt, and get to the clinic as soon as possible. Willibardo walks away with his beer, while his family members line up to be tested. He later says he feels good that services like this are available, because otherwise he would not have known to go to the clinic.

Harvesting peaches - PHOTO BY SAF INTERN JESSAMYN BOWLING
  • Photo by SAF intern Jessamyn Bowling
  • Harvesting peaches

Each year, between 70,000 and 150,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers such as Willibardo, from Mexico and farther south, harvest North Carolina's tobacco, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and other crops. About 8,000 of them are contracted by growers and agribusiness companies through the federal guest worker program; other migrants have crossed the border illegally to work in the fields. Most don't have adequate access to health care and live in dilapidated housing.

Despite rising national resentment toward immigrants—especially toward immigrants here illegally—the movement to help migrant workers is gaining momentum, and with a youthful edge. Student Action with Farmworkers, a Durham-based nonprofit, brings college students together with farmworkers through a 10-week summer internship program, Into the Fields. The interns work with advocacy groups to help migrants gain access to health clinics, teach them about the dangers of pesticides and promote safety in the fields. Some students assist with union organizing; others teach migrants about their legal rights. And SAF works with several groups to lobby for statewide policy changes on farmworker and immigrant issues.

Riggs, the physician's assistant, says interns are a key to serving farmworkers, especially in the summer, when the population surges. "You get better patient coverage when you work with them," he says.

Working with similar organizations throughout the state, SAF has been the driving force behind the Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN), a coalition of advocacy groups that lobbies for state legislation. "We all work in our own areas," says Mary Lee Hall, an attorney with the farmworker unit of N.C. Legal Aid. "We had to get over that. SAF—because they work with all these agencies—they were able to close the gap. They really are the common denominator."

SAF intern Luisa Baeza does health outreach with workers after Mass. - PHOTO BY ALIX BLAIR

"Our first gathering of people was to figure out what we were each doing, what our strengths were and how we could tackle things if we worked together," says Melinda Wiggins, a former SAF intern. She is now the group's executive director.

In 2005, the coalition worked with lawmakers to introduce a comprehensive bill on migrant housing that would have ensured living accommodations have heating equipment in the winter; a kitchen with a stove, tables and chairs; washers and dryers; deadbolts on the doors; and a mattress in good condition. That bill stalled in House and Senate committees, but Wiggins says the legwork made an impact. "We started getting phone calls," she says. "People wanted to meet with us. We found out we did have a lot more power together."

On May 1 of this year, at Latino Day at the legislature, several hundred people gathered in the halls of the General Assembly, as others have since 2003. After a quick orientation, they visited legislators, advocating for a slate of bills that impact Latinos across the state. Members of FAN pushed for the Agricultural Family Protection Act, which would require growers to keep extensive records of the pesticides they use, allow workers to make anonymous complaints, and toughen penalties for farmers who violate pesticide law.

FAN also lobbied for an amendment to close a loophole in the Migrant Housing Act that allowed growers to provide migrants beds without mattresses—a scaled-back version of the 2005 legislation.

Farmworkers load tobacco into a curing shed. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAF

The Agricultural Family Protection Act languished in the House Committee on Agribusiness, where it will likely die now that the session has ended. Erica Peterson, spokesperson for the N.C. Agribusiness Council, which opposed the legislation, says the council remains open to negotiating a bill in the next session.

But the final version of the Migrant Housing Act amendment unanimously passed both chambers. It was the first new law concerning migrant workers in almost three decades and a major victory considering signficant anti-immigrant sentiment in the legislature this session.

Lobbyists for Latino issues had to fight as many bills as they supported. Lawmakers filed eight bills that would toughen laws on illegal immigrants, with most of the legislation focusing on illegal immigrants in the criminal justice system. But two measures sought to deny in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and one to prohibit companies that employ illegal immigrants from obtaining state contracts. "The immigration controversy has been at the forefront of our work," Wiggins says. "It's been difficult. It's gotten considerably worse in the last couple years."

Before the final vote on the migrant housing measure, the bill's sponsors faced some of that opposition. "The problem we were dealing with was immigration," says state Sen. Charles Albertson, a Democrat and primary sponsor of the bill, adding it "was sent back a couple of times to have the Department of Labor check the immigration status" of migrants making complaints. But Albertson and other lawmakers succeeded in keeping that language out of the law.

Migrant farmworkers listen to SAF intern Noemi Amezcoa, 22, of Oregon, as she explains how to record improper pesticide use. The group also provides migrant workers information in pamphlets. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Migrant farmworkers listen to SAF intern Noemi Amezcoa, 22, of Oregon, as she explains how to record improper pesticide use. The group also provides migrant workers information in pamphlets.

"I thought we ought to try to make sure that people who worked in the fields all day would have a bed with a mattress at the end of the day," Albertson says.

Supporters celebrated the law as an overdue victory. "Farmworker advocates often feel like we're on the defensive all the time," says Lori Fernald Khamala, a former SAF intern who helped organize the Farmworker Advocacy Network. "For the first time, other groups see that we have to be reckoned with." Albertson says the N.C. Agribusiness Council, the Farm Bureau and the N.C. Department of Labor supported the bill. Representatives from the Farm Bureau didn't return calls for comment. Peterson of N.C. Agribusiness Council says although negotiations stalled two years ago, in the 2007 session, "I went and asked them if we could go over the bill and work things out together. What could agriculture agree to do that advocates want done?

"I see it more as a partnership. Instead of from an adversarial situation, let's sit down and make an agreement instead of battling this in the General Assembly."

Harvesting peaches. - PHOTO BY SAF INTERN SANJUANA GARCIA
  • Photo by SAF intern Sanjuana Garcia
  • Harvesting peaches.

Student Action with Farmworkers traces its roots to 1976 when child psychologist Robert Coles and Duke professor Bruce Payne led several students in a summer-long investigation into conditions in the state's migrant camps. Duke offered similar courses in the early 1980s, and in 1990, the Duke Center for Documentary Studies offered a course on migrants with an emphasis on documentary work. Those courses laid the groundwork for Student Action with Farmworkers; in the summer of 1992, several faculty members, students and advocates incorporated the nonprofit organization, with close connections to the Center for Documentary Studies.

Much has changed since those early days. "We were surrounded by mostly white students," says Wiggins. "Because we thought it was important to include farmworkers, it changed who we were." Now the organization has a majority Latino board and staff, and most of the interns are also Latino, many with farmworker backgrounds.

When Yesica Orozco came to North Carolina from upstate New York, she had never ventured far from the apple orchard where she lives; her summer internship was the longest stretch she'd ever been away from home. She and another student, Luisa Baeza, work with the Wake County Farmworker Health Program, helping nurses fill out forms for migrants, often after Spanish-language Catholic services. "We get their name, their camp, their birth date, and they wait to see the nurse," Orozco says. "If I have to, I'll take their blood pressure. It's pretty easy."

René Balenzuéla calls home to Mexico outside of the migrant camp where he's staying. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Orozco and Baeza are emblematic of the students in the internship program. Twenty-one of the 28 interns are women (because women send in the overwhelming majority of applications). Most are bilingual. They spend countless hours helping migrants with paperwork. They spend the rest of their time creating theater performances to entertain the farmworkers or making audio and photography documentary projects about the migrants. "The documentary piece is the underlying thread that enables us to do our work better," Wiggins says. "We use stories a lot in honoring people. Some farmworkers don't really have a voice in Raleigh, D.C. or their own workplace. We give them a chance to speak for themselves."

In her documentary research, Noemi Amezcoa heard tales of the long walk to cross the border—the hunger, dehydration and occasional death.

Most interns heard about and witnessed the migrant housing conditions. "Every camp I've seen, there's something wrong with the house," Baeza says. "Ninety-nine percent of them don't have air conditioning."

SAF intern Luisa Baeza stands in a recently harvested tobacco field. - PHOTO BY ALIX BLAIR

With a youthful idealism, the students say their eyes have been opened to injustice and they want to continue working with migrants. If the group's history is any indication, that will likely happen. A 2002 survey of SAF alumni found that almost 90 percent of those who responded were active with farmworkers after their internships, more than half returned to their campuses to raise awareness, and nearly one-quarter joined a farmworker organization. More recent numbers aren't available, but the trend seems to be holding steady, at least locally: Four of the eight groups in the Farmworker Advocacy Network, excluding SAF, have had former interns on staff; three still have SAF alums. The state's farmworker advocacy groups are building strength, as SAF trains a new crop of potential activists every summer. "SAF is what first taught me about farmworkers," says Khamala, an SAF intern from 1999 who became state coordinator of the National Farmworker Ministry, an organization that encourages people of faith to support migrants. "Before that I was pretty ignorant. [Through SAF] I was infused with a passion to work for farmworker justice."

This summer's internship ended August 10. The previous Monday, at a migrant camp in the Greene County town of Snow Hill, several SAF interns prepared for their final theater performance before an audience of men who had spent the day picking tobacco leaves. The show opened when intern Isidro Diaz returned from the fields to his wife, played by Amezcoa, who would rather watch her evening soap opera than warm up her weary husband's tortilla. The students threw themselves into their roles, and the migrant workers watched amused, as the performance unfolded in their camp cafeteria. Then a bulletin interrupted the overacted soap opera with news about the dangers of pesticides. Intern Agmet Miguel held a microphone made from a paper towel tube and a wad of foil, and said, "¿Qué piensas que los trabajadores agricolas necesitan para protegerse de las pesticidas?" ("What do you think farmworkers need to protect themselves from pesticides?") The men shouted in response: gloves, long-sleeve shirts, education.

Migrant farmworkers watch a play about the dangers of pesticides performed by SAF interns inside a camp. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Migrant farmworkers watch a play about the dangers of pesticides performed by SAF interns inside a camp.

"They know who we are," says intern Orozco. "They aren't scared to talk to us. They trust us."

Interns who perform for the migrants tell of men who weep during their performances, not because of the melodrama, but because the young actors remind them of the children they left south of the border. No one cried at the last performance, but workers did line up to take Polaroid pictures with the motley cast, standing next to the young reporter with the foil microphone who taught them about the dangers of pesticides. Then the workers returned to their bedrooms to rest before the next day's harvest.

The students, like migrants themselves, prepared to return home after a summer of intense work. "We just got used to being here," says Maribel Maldanado, a student from Florida. "And now we're going back."

"At the end of the summer program, they think it's the end," Executive Director Wiggins says. "And we tell them it's the beginning."

More SAF links:

Voices from the Fields: Four slide shows that profile the SAF interns' summer experiences within the context of their greater stories of education, struggle and achievement

Telling Stories: Students at the Center for Documentary Studies work with an advocacy group to collect the stories of Latino farmworkers and their families

Farmworkers apply pesticides at a Christmas tree farm. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAF

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