You’ve been picking onions this summer. Now someone is taking you to pick peaches and apples somewhere. You only know it will be as hot as where you picked the onions. As soon as it begins to cool off, the apples will be picked and your visa will expire. Then they take you back to the border crossing.
For three or four years the recruiter returns to take you to the same fields. The orchard owner notices and likes your work. He asks if you’d like to work year round and become a “crew boss”. The pay he mentions exceeds what you ever imagined making.
You are one of the lucky ones. In 2020, there were 213,000 H2A temporary agricultural worker visas issued by the U.S. In 2007 there were 51,000. Ninety three per cent of the 2020 visas were awarded to Mexican farmworkers. Estimates of the total U.S. agriculture work force vary widely but most range from 2 to 3 million workers, both seasonal and year round.
Even as a H2A visa holder you are not eligible for most government services. Your housing is in a field camp, but you are responsible for your health care, sick pay and food when natural disasters or pandemics prevent you from working. Whether you receive any help with these is up to the owner of the fields. That is unless there is an organization like the Migrant Farmworker Assistance Fund (MFAF) of Kansas City.
Since its founding in 1984, the MFWAF has been the catalyst for creating a health clinic and a Head Start early childhood education center. MFAF staff and interns have offered farmworker children after school and summer camp programs, assisted with scholarships and counseled families on opportunities for a college education. Just retired from 39 years as a Legal Aid attorney, the organization’s founder and leader is Suzanne Gladney.
For workers in the orchards and packing sheds an hour drive east of Kansas City, Suzanne’s legal support has been vital. Adults and family members rely on her to negotiate the byzantine and dysfunctional U.S. immigration system. The MFAF legal and other services help ease some of the farmworkers’ transition to year round employment and residency in the U.S..
Many of the workers are from rural Mexico and have never seen a doctor before going to the clinic organized by MFAF. “They say,” Suzanne recently told me, “why go to a doctor? You don’t think I’m dying do you?” Health services and educational opportunities available to workers and family members compensate for the hard labor, long hours, low pay and often poor housing afforded the men and women.
Thanks to MFAF guidance and encouragement, many farmworker children have graduated from nearby high schools and community colleges. A few have continued their studies and one young man is now studying for a PhD at Catholic University in D.C. He completed his Masters’ degree in Memphis where he met his wife-to-be, the principle dancer with the Memphis Ballet. George is one of many success stories of MFAF’s contributions to the lives of Kansas City farmworkers.
In our meeting, I asked Suzanne what keeps her going in her work to maintain funding, guide staff and volunteers, improve living conditions for farmworkers and their families and struggle with U.S. immigration policies. “It’s the stories that help keep me going” she quickly replied.