Picking for keeps: Cobden farm provides jobs for immigrant colony

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

COBDEN, Ill. -- Hunched over baskets in the warmth of a Southern Illinois spring day, migrant workers aren't thinking about protests or walls or amnesty programs. Here at Flamm's Orchard, the immigration debate roiling the country is just a fog of faraway images.

Ask these workers if they know about the controversy and they laugh, miming the motions of picketers holding signs. Ask them where they stand on amnesty programs, and they grin shyly and return to their work.

Here the main focus is strawberry season. And at 35 cents per quart, the migrants are not paid by the hour; they're paid by the berry. That leaves little time for political leanings.

"They see it on TV, but they don't talk about it too much," said Pastor Zamora, a crew leader who brought his family to the United States 10 years ago. "They ask, 'Is it true that anyone here for five years will get green cards?' But they don't know. They're only here to work."

That's because most are not picking for themselves; they're picking for those they left behind.

Sergio Chavez of Oaxaca, Mexico, said he made the decision to leave his wife and six children three years ago. Since then he's worked in different places around the state on a resident alien green card.

"It's for them. I'm here to work and send money back to my family. If they can come here and become Americans, I would like that for them. I want them to have a better life ... I don't want them to have to do this," he said through a translator.

To provide this better life, Chavez picks fruits and vegetables during the summer and fall months and works other odd jobs during the winter. Often he shares a bunkhouse with four other men.

"I don't mind it. Over there you can't find jobs. Nothing. Here I do this work. And I can help my family. It is better to be away from them if I can help them to get a better life by sending money," he said, briefly glancing up from a squatting position.

Of the approximately $35 Chavez will make today picking strawberries for three hours, he will likely send $30 back home to his family.

Following paydays migrants working these fields will send as much as $20,000 in money orders to Mexico, one worker said.

Flamm's Orchard

Illinois has the sixth largest population of migrant workers nationwide. Chavez and 30 other migrants work on Flamm's Orchard, 8 miles north of Anna. Operated by the Flamm family since 1880, the farm grows strawberries, apples, peaches, cucumbers, eggplant and squash on its 2000 rolling acres. During peak apple picking season in September, the migrant numbers will top 70.

Temporary labor has always been part of the farm's landscape.

Over the years, the Flamms have hired teams of German immigrants, Ozark hill country boys, laborers from the Central Illinois coal region and African-American sharecroppers recently moved north. Living in tents or log cabins on the farm, these groups used the picking work as a way to climb the economic ladder.

Mexican workers began arriving in the early 1970s.

"They just get here. I don't really know how. It's a word-of-mouth kind of thing. You get a couple of people who show up here, and there's work here, and they go home and tell everybody about it," said owner Jeff Flamm. "It just kind of spreads. They're not really brought by anybody, you know."

Flamm said the workers are mercenary in their quest for the best wages. "They don't think anything of a thousand miles. They'll go to the state of Washington tomorrow if they hear there's good work there," he said. "They prefer to be paid by the quart because it rewards them for hard work. They're here to work."

Flamm said he requires all of his workers to prove they are in the country legally. That means either an INS-issued resident alien card or a permanent resident card. Representatives of the Department of Labor visit to check his paperwork once every other year, and the INS makes rare but unannounced visits, he said.

Flamm said those who believe migrants are stealing jobs from Americans need a reality check. "It's a hard fact that there's nobody that will do this kind of work, and even though these guys are out here making $10 or $12 per hour picking strawberries, I can't find anybody to do it," said Flamm.

This, he said, is a fact, not a preference.

"We're in a county here that's got probably close to double-digit unemployment," said Flamm. "I'd like nothing better than to have a bunch of people out here that are local people that need the job, need the money. I mean I can talk to them. It'd make my life a lot easier, but they don't want to do it. If there wasn't a need, these people wouldn't be out here filling it."

The current unemployment rate in Union County is 7.5 percent. If some feel threatened by the influx of migrants, they shouldn't, said Flamm.

"If you're an American and you're willing to work and you're good at what you do, these guys are not a threat to you," he said.

Migrant camp

Flamm's workers all claim to be documented. But a Pew Hispanic Center study put the number of illegal immigrants in the country at approximately 11.5 million. Illinois alone is estimated to be home to between 375,000 and 425,000 undocumented workers. Missouri has an estimated 35,000 to 65,000, a smaller number due in part to its lower minimum wage.

In Cobden, it doesn't take a lot of looking to find people who are undocumented. Less than 1 mile south down Old Highway 51 sits a small cluster of cinderblock bungalows known as the Union-Jackson County Farm Worker Housing Association. For the last 35 years, this complex has housed families of field workers. It has on-site family counseling, medical care and a Head Start program all funded by the state.

The camp itself is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Housing and Community Facilities Program. At top capacity it can house over 200 people.

Camp policy is not to ask questions about the legality of those seeking shelter.

"Most people here do not have papers, my friend," said Fidel Bartolo, who legally immigrated to the U.S. more than 10 years ago and now works as caretaker of the complex.

"I don't know what they do to get work. They show something, some kind of papers and they're allowed to work," he said. "They do what they have to do to find work. That's how it is. You're not going to find many people with green cards living in here."

A woman named Elvira, originally of Guanajauto, answers a knock on one of the doors with two small children clutching her skirt. Though nervous, she freely admits to being illegal. Three years ago she, her husband and the children -- then infants -- hustled across the border into Texas. Now her husband packs fruit in a Cobden orchard while she stays home.

"I do like it here because there is work. It's a better life than in Mexico. It's true that I miss home, but I'd like to stay here. It's better for the children," she said through a translator. "I don't know what will happen. I don't know if someday we will be found and arrested. I do worry about that."

Angie Gomez knows the story well.

Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, she came to the United States 47 years ago and reached Cobden five years later when her husband found work at Eckert's orchard. She was one of the first Mexicans to come to this part of the country and now works as the family services coordinator with Migrant Education Inc. in the camp.

She said she sees families every day that are working and paying taxes but still living "in the shadows."

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Gomez. "Twelve million people. Mercy, that's a lot of people, and they do not just stand in the corner. They live somewhere, and they work somewhere. And they came here because they were needed, they came because the door was open."

Gomez said a lot of immigrants are taking risks to stay hidden.

"They pay taxes just as much as anyone else. They pay social security, Medicare and yet still some of them don't get services because they don't want to get closer to declare themselves undocumented," said Gomez. "Mainly medical care is what they miss out on ... if you don't get these people vaccinated and give them regular checkups, at the end it's going to cost more."

Critics would respond that the undocumented do not pay the same taxes and disproportionately drain welfare services. But Gomez, though a U.S. citizen, feels a kinship with these newer immigrants following in her footsteps and seeking basic aid.

"They say, 'Why should we be excluded? Even us, even undocumented people.' So many people don't have insurance and so they are limited to get medical services, and so before they go to the doctor's they ask themselves, 'Do we really need it?' That's not the way it should be," she said.


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