"When we began our first interview, Demetrio seemed a little detached. He answered yes or no to most of our questions; however, when we began asking more about his family, we saw his eyes tell a different story. Demetrio told us that his wife was expecting his third child. The baby was due in two weeks so he wouldn’t be able to be there for his son’s birth and in fact wouldn’t be able to meet his son until November when his son would already be 5 months old.
During our second interview, Demetrio showed us pictures of his newborn son who still doesn’t have a name. He seemed proud and sad at the same time. We asked about what he wondered and at first, he said he didn’t ask himself or wonder anything, but after we explained the prompt again and gave a few examples, he said he wondered everyday if the rest of his life would be like this, separated and away from his family. The room felt dense, almost like you could feel the weight that he carries. It’s not just that he has to miss big and important family moments like the birth of a child, but it’s knowing everyday his children are growing up, trying new things and learning about themselves and the people that they want to become, while he’s not there to see or influence it."
Excerpt from Student Action with Farmworkers’ (SAF) blog on the theme separation of families by Catherine Crowe, 2015 SAF Fellow.
When we talk about separation of families in the immigration context we often mean the harsh immigration enforcement machine that deports one parent and leave the rest of the family behind. Or the fact that millions of undocumented immigrants in the US are unable to return to their country of origin to visit their loved ones. This fear is a daily reality for the majority of farmworkers who are undocumented. But Demetrio’s story illustrates another type of family separation. Demetrio has an H-2A visa for temporary agricultural workers. Many H-2A workers spend up to 10 months in the US every year away from their families. Sheepherders on H-2A visas stay for 3 years before returning home for a short duration.
H-2A workers typically come to the United States without their families. Although technically H-2A workers may bring their spouse and/or minor children with them, in reality it doesn’t happen. H-2A workers live in employer-provided housing that is usually dormitory style and not appropriate for families, and it is unlikely that employers would allow workers to bring their families. Plus, for an H-2A worker to bring their spouse, he (it’s usually a he) would have to show that he can financially support her while they are in the US. Farmworkers wages aren’t high enough to meet this standard. Under the H-2A program, employers can and do discriminate based on a person’s age and gender and the result is that is a workforce composed almost exclusively of young men. (In the rare instances where there are crews of women, they are exclusively women as well.) As a result, even if a male and female couple wanted to work together on H-2A visas, it would be extremely challenging; and it is highly unlikely their children would be able to join them.
The H-2A program exploits economically desperate individuals. People should not have to choose between living with their family or feeding their family. In public discourse on policy proposals for the future flow for immigration reform, some people believe that many Mexican farmworkers just want to come here and work and then go home. But no one wants to be separated from his or her family. Proposals for harsh guestworker programs that treat workers as commodities should be rejected as inconsistent with America’s economic and democratic freedoms. Any needed future workers from abroad must be afforded the same legal rights as U.S. workers and should be given the opportunity to earn citizenship. Whether they chose to settle here or return to their country of origin at some point should be their choice. Immigration reform should be a stepping stone toward modernizing agricultural labor practices and treating farmworkers with the respect they deserve.