Miss. farming town's immigrants pray bill will die

By Laura Tillman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 31 2012 9:40 a.m. MDT

Her mother, Maria, cooks pozole and fresh tortillas more often than hamburgers, and Jenny helps her practice English. Jenny's father works at a furniture factory, which pays better than the sweet potato labor. About 20 members of their extended family live in the rural town.

While proponents of immigration laws like HB 488 say they free up jobs for Americans, the H2A and H2B visa programs for foreign workers are designed to discourage employers from hiring immigrant labor unless absolutely necessary. To do this, the programs require employers to pay immigrant workers a higher wage and transport, house and feed them. Local workers become economically attractive by comparison.

"These programs wouldn't exist unless we needed them," said Joshua Lamont, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor.

At Topshaw Farms in Vardaman, the Edmonson family says the bill could devastate their business. They've watched the effect of Alabama's bill on crops like sweet potatoes, and say a profitable harvest can turn to waste if labor isn't available the moment it's ready to be plucked from the vine.

"When your crop's at risk, you can't fool with people who don't want to work," said Sandra Lucius, assistant manager at Topshaw Farms.

Melissa Edmonson, whose family owns farms and a packing plant, said she puts out periodic calls for local labor with meager results.

"They'll often come work for a week, and then leave because they don't understand how difficult the work really is," Edmonson said.

Speaking of immigrant laborers, she said: "These guys bust their tail."

Many immigrant workers have work visas, but their spouses or children may lack documentation. When immigration laws like House Bill 488 are considered, immigrants must also weigh the risk of family separation.

"We want to stay, but our family has never been separated," Jenny's mother Maria said. "If the bill passes we'll probably go back to Mexico."

Maria's hometown, a poor suburb of the city of San Luis Potosi, would represent a dramatic decline in quality of life for her children, who are U.S. citizens. Water and electricity are available but of questionable quality, and there are few jobs.

Jenny arrived at Vardaman Elementary speaking no English, but the school's sole bilingual teacher Barbara Annie Anderson brought her up to speed.

When Anderson began teaching at Vardaman Elementary 16 years ago, she worked with a handful of migrant farmworkers' children. Now, about 150 of the school's 400 students are Hispanic.

When asked if she would mind moving to Mexico, Jenny said no.

"There are no rules there," she said. But then her teacher asked if she would miss her friends.

"Oh yeah, I'd miss my friends, and school, and my teachers, and my favorite candy. Even you, Miss Annie," she said with a smirk.

But Maria understands what her children would really miss.

"The opportunities for them here, they can go far, and life is peaceful," she said. "I'm Mexican, but my children are Mexican-American."

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