Down East 2013 ©
You guys want breakfast?” shouts a middle-aged man in a red pickup truck that has stopped at a corner in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. There’s more than a McMuffin involved. The question is code for a day of work for Miguel and another man standing on the corner. They know this guy, a foreman for a landscaping company. He’s a regular. They get in the truck eagerly.
Both Miguel and his companion are recent arrivals who have become temporary members of Maine’s burgeoning migrant worker community. Each year somewhere between ten thousand and twelve thousand migrant farmworkers and their families arrive in Maine to harvest blueberries, broccoli, apples, and other produce. Others work in wreath factories or seafood processing or construction. The overwhelming majority are Hispanic, mostly from Mexico but also from as far away as Brazil. There are major Maine companies that would go out of business without them. And according to officials who work with the migrant community, more than half of them are undocumented workers, illegal immigrants. Miguel is one of them.
“Nationally 65 percent or more of the migrant farmworker population is undocumented,” says Juan Perez-Febles, director of migrant and immigrant services for the Maine Department of Labor, who says the number undoubtedly applies in Maine, too. “They either walk across the border or overstay a work visa.”
Miguel arrived in Portland in April from a small town in central Mexico, on the recommendation of two friends back home who had visited earlier. His companion today is from Guatemala, and he doesn’t speak, period.
This is Miguel’s first time in Maine. He made contacts among Portland’s Hispanic community who told him how to get day jobs with construction companies, landscapers, and other businesses. “Good work here,” he says. He doesn’t have any work papers, and no one asks to see them. An executive order signed by Governor John Baldacci in 2004 prohibits state agencies, including law enforcement officers, from asking about immigration status unless it is pertinent to an investigation. Portland has its own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
On this morning in early June Miguel says he has made more money in two months of day labor than he had in two years in Mexico. He wires money back to his family every week. “The food [prices] keep going up, up, up, but the jobs [there] don’t pay up, up, up,” he explains. Portland is only a temporary stop. By late June he expects to be picking broccoli in Aroostook County before moving on to rake blueberries Down East.
“I’ve seen workers make $1,200 a week raking blueberries,” remarks Perez-Febles, whose parents sent him to the United States from Cuba as a child to escape the Castro regime. “That’s not a bad income for someone who maybe makes a couple dollars a day in Mexico or Guatemala.”
Juan and Miguel might cross paths this month in Down East Maine. Starting in late July, a wide variety of government agencies, from the Social Security Administration to the Maine Migrant Health Program, takes over the town hall in Columbia Falls to create the Rakers’ Center. “It’s a unique operation, known nationwide,” says Perez-Febles.
Again, no one asks or cares about immigration status. “All we care about is their health,” says Barbara Ginley, director of the Maine Migrant Health Program. Begun in 1991, today the program’s three mobile medical units set up shop in apple orchards and blueberry barrens across the state. Last year the program treated just under 1,200 people.
Most of the farmworkers in Maine are part of the “Eastern Migrant Stream,” Perez-Febles explains. “They originate around Fort Pierce, Florida, picking oranges and strawberries in January,” he says. “Then they move on to peaches and pecans in Georgia and highbush blueberries in New Jersey before arriving here in late July for the blueberry harvest. Some come earlier for broccoli, then rake blueberries. Some stay on to work in the Christmas wreath factories through Christmas.”
Blueberry company executives, wreath factory owners, and Aroostook farmers have all been quoted as saying that migrant farmworkers are vital to their continued success. Lately, though, the national controversy over immigration issues has made them more cautious about public statements. “We need the farm-workers and love them,” says a spokesperson for one of the biggest broccoli growers in The County. “We’re definitely supporters of the migrant population. But right now we want to keep a low profile and just paddle our own canoe up here.”
Both Perez-Febles and Ginley say they think the number of migrant workers in Maine has dropped off recently. (No one does a census, and population estimates are based on informal reports and harvest acreage numbers.) One factor has been growing mechanization in blueberry harvesting. The other is increasing difficulties in entering and staying in the United States.
“There has been heightened enforcement activity along the border,” Perez-Febles explains. “Plus the immigration climate in this country is out of control. You listen to Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly, and America’s climate is not a friendly one. Because of that, many migrant workers have decided they don’t want the hassle.”
Oddly enough, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Boston claims it has no figures for the number of illegal immigrants it catches in Maine. Bruce Foucart, ICE’s special agent in charge for New England, will say only that “over the past three years, the number of removals in New England has been pretty consistent.” Nationally, he notes that ICE made 803 criminal arrests and 4,077 administrative arrests in fiscal year 2007, compared to 176 criminal arrests and 1,116 administrative arrests in 2005.
(A spokesman at the Border Patrol station in Houlton says apprehensions there have dropped steadily, from 685 in fiscal year 2001 to 95 in 2007 and 47 this year.)
Foucart doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about illegal immigration in a conversation. Instead, he focuses on criminal investigations into drug smuggling, money laundering, and Hispanic gangs moving into the Boston area.
Most undocumented workers, he says, present employers with stolen or counterfeit identification and green cards. “We see a lot of fictitious Green Cards,” he notes. One of ICE’s priorities is tracking down document mills that turn out the phony papers. And, he adds, “in the past, we saw a lot of illegal aliens heading to Maine for drivers licenses,” referring to the fact that, until the legislature changed the law in April, driver’s license applicants in Maine did not have to prove residency or have a Social Security number.
Local police departments in Maine rarely get involved in immigration issues unless they come up as part of another investigation. The Ellsworth Police Department, for example, arrested three different groups of illegal immigrants in 2006, all by accident. “We took a lot of heat from the Maine Civil Liberties Union and other people who thought we were targeting illegals,” recalls Lieutenant Harold Page. “Two of the cases involved traffic stops, and one was burning brush without a permit. We don’t go out hunting for them, and we haven’t arrested any since, but if we run across them in the normal course of business we do what we have to do.”
Inevitably, some migrant workers have settled in Maine, although once again it’s a tough number to pin down. The 2000 census found 9,360 Hispanics in the entire state, a figure that advocacy groups challenged as far below the true number. Portland has about four thousand, Perez-Febles estimates.
Former migrant workers have transformed the Washington County town of Milbridge, thanks to the jobs created by Lawrence and Drusilla Ray at Cherry Point Products. For ten years prior to 1997 they had operated a small sea urchin processing plant employing a handful of local people. As overfishing strangled the urchin industry, they turned to sea cucumbers, a slimy, repulsive bottom dweller whose meat is popular in Asia.
“We built this nice big building with million-dollar pieces of equipment, sank all our savings into it, and never once thought to do a survey of the local labor market,” Drusilla Ray recalls with a rueful laugh. “After all, Washington County had the highest unemployment rate in the state. We figured people would be beating down the doors.”
Instead, they couldn’t find nearly enough people to do the work, and those who did come in often quit after a day or two. “It was wet, cold, uncomfortable work, and people didn’t want to do it,” Ray explains. Finally a friend who was a foreman on a blueberry crew sent over twenty-five migrant workers who had been stranded by a poor blueberry harvest. They didn’t speak English, and Ray didn’t speak Spanish, but they took to the jobs and liked them. “It didn’t take them long to work up to earning fifteen to twenty-seven dollars an hour processing sea cucumbers,” she says.
The workers returned the next year, and this time some of them brought their families. Within eight years Ray was employing upwards of seventy former migrant workers along with a few local residents. “They settled in, put their kids in the local schools,” she says. When school officials baulked at hiring an English as a Second Language teacher, Ray ran for and won a seat on the school board. The teacher was hired, and the children learned English. Today five are in college, and one graduates this coming year, she says.
“We got raided once,” she recalls. “Twelve vans, twenty-three agents in all their war gear. They found two people with bad identification. They wanted to know where the ‘other twenty-five illegals’ were. We didn’t have any more. They were all legal.”
Today Hispanics make up 10 percent of Milbridge’s 1,300 residents. “Things were maybe a bit touchy with local people at first,” Ray allows. “Now [the Hispanics] have become accepted. People call me asking for someone to do yard work or painting. Some of my former employees have branched out into other work and businesses. This has been the best experience of my life.”
Miguel’s day boss, the landscape foreman, almost drives off when a reporter identifies himself. “One of my crew calls in sick, I know I can find a substitute here,” he explains. “And someone’s sick almost every day, it seems. Besides, these guys work hard. Hey, my mother’s folks came from East Nowhere, Quebec, to work in the mills here. My dad’s people are from Poland and Italy. You think I’m gonna tell these guys they can’t work because they talk funny and they’re from another country?”