Antonio Torres' hands are strong. They have calluses, blisters, insect bites and small, faded scars. His fingernails are dirty. So are the clothes he wears each day to the ranch.
He has a generous smile. His peers say he is a very capable man. He's proud of what he does and likes hard labor. He is highly skilled and very knowledgeable about the crops he picks for his "patron," the farmer who hired him at the beginning of the season.Torres is one of nearly 20,000 migrants who work seasonally in Utah. They are nomads, following the crops, often going hundreds of miles from home with limited resources.
He works a 10-hour day in Syracuse. His lifestyle requires motivation, knowledge and planning. "I enjoy the open fields, the fresh air, the fresh fruit from the earth," Torres says.
Although he's only 40, the long days and short harvest season have taken a toll on Torres. His face is wrinkled, his knees are shot and his feet are numb from kneeling on the ground continuously. He earns most of his income this way. Missing a day of work is almost a sin, since it represents lost dollars and, many times, loss of a job.
Torres says he never gets sick and can only remember seeing a doctor once. His mobile lifestyle doesn't give him enough time to learn of the services at his disposal. Before he has time to develop a feel for the community, he moves on.
He says he is an independent man. He sleeps in a cottage near the ranch. Most of the other migrants he knows are homeless - too proud to ask for help.
Torres has always been a farmer. His parents owned a small farm in Zacatecas, Mexico. He said he and other farmworkers immigrate to Utah in May, before the "picas" or picking begins. He works in the fields from May until the end of October.
"Some remain here and work in factories, others go back to their land," Torres says. He will help with the potato picking and then travel 36 hours by car to get home to the wife and seven children waiting for him.
"I'm grateful to my `patron.' He has been generous with me."
Migrant workers in Utah usually come from the Rio Grande Valley and Eagle Pass, Texas. The majority are Hispanic. About 20 percent are Kickapoo and Navajo Indians from reservations in southern Utah. They pick fruit and load it on trucks.
Many have come to the United States over the past 30 years by crossing the border without proper documentation. Forced by other circumstances to seek better lives away from home, some immigrants find exploi-tation along with work.
The initial wrench of leaving home and loved ones is compounded by the rigors of the trip and the permanent uncertainty of life in a foreign country.
Once here, these immigrants become a vulnerable underclass, unable to seek the protection of the law. Employers, landlords and criminals often take advantage of them because of their precarious status. The immigrants fear deportation, and parents keep children from school for fear of discovery.
The United States recognized the plight of aliens in 1986 when it offered legal status to those who immigrated before Jan. 1, 1982.
The "Special Agricultural Workers" (or SAW requirements), a special provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, grants temporary residency and a work permit to agricultural workers who can produce an affidavit from a farmer or farm labor contractor saying they had worked for at least 90 days during the year ending May 1, 1986. The work must involve an approved crop. Livestock, forest products and forage grains like alfalfa don't qualify. Fruits, vegetables and sugar beets do.
Hiring illegal aliens is a crime. Employees must show employers proof they are eligible to work. Employers do not have to keep copies of the workers' documents for the INS.
"We are not dealing with just another factor of production, but the needs and aspirations of fellow human beings," said Meryl Rogers, officer in charge of the Salt Lake Immigration and Naturalization Service office. "Although they (migrant workers) have had much less of a problem in seeking legal status, they still have great needs."
Abuses in the system
Alan Speirs, previously chief legalization officer and now supervisory examiner in the same office, agrees. "The real loose standard opened it up to all kinds of invitation to trouble. Innocent people being talked into doing illegal things."
The local INS office has indicted 10 people for creating or providing fraudulent documents. They weren't SAW applicants, but facilitators who were running a business.
Nationwide, more than two-thirds of the 3 million amnesty applications have been processed. About one million are pending; some are hard to trace, so officials are extending the time on employment authorization, according to INS officials.
The Salt Lake City INS office handled applicants from Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for the amnesty portion, but there were no jurisdictional lines for SAW applicants, since they are so mobile.
The Salt Lake City office received 4,500 SAW applications. More than 95 percent of the applicants were Mexican. The law has allowed many the opportunity to live in peace and get an education. But the applicants still face many problems. Some parents have been separated from their children. Those whose children were born in the United States don't have to worry. Others, however, qualified for legal status under the law, but their children are foreigners. The INS has promised not to deport non-qualifying children during the application period. The INS has set up a family fairness program to help any spouse or unmarried child under the age of 18 of any alien who has been granted temporary or permanent residence under the immigration law.
Seventy percent of the SAW applications have been approved nationwide. SAW applicants account for 64 percent of all alien applications in Utah.
Because the SAW requirements are much more lax, fraud in the program is much higher than it has been in the general amnesty program, Rogers said. False affidavits have been sold by farmers or forged by applicants.
SAW applicants also do not receive the training that is essential to pass citizenship exams, the INS said. The federal government, however, has set up the State Legalization Impact Assistance Grant, approving 33 school sites for the area to provide educational training.
No quick fix
There are no short-term solutions to the problem of undocumented migration. Despite rules and regulations, the United States will continue to be a magnet to people seeking more attractive wages.
Dexter Pearce, executive director of the Utah Migrant Health Program, said it is estimated that between 9,000 and 20,000 migrant workers live in the state. The figure includes both legal and illegal farmworkers.
Pearce's agency offers migrant workers primary health-care services through four clinics called Centros de Buena Salud (Good Health Centers). There's also a charity clinic called Skyline in Ephraim.
Pearce said lack of funding is the primary obstacle in providing services to migrant workers. He must serve 12,000 individuals with a $309,000 annual budget. Other programs do better: The Indian Health Program's budget, for example, totals $1 million and serves 900 individuals.
Pearce also compares the migrant population in Utah to Third World nations. Migrants with minor health complaints generally don't seek treatment until the minor complaint turns into a major health problem.
All too often, strep infections become rheumatic fever and earaches become permanent hearing loss. Chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and asthma occur with a greater frequency in this population, Pearce said.
Alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases have a high incidence, too. There are also high rates of unwanted pregnancies. Active cases of tuberculosis are not uncommon and most cases of polio during the past 10 years have been found within the migrant population.
Occupational exposures to pesticides are common, as well as problems caused by poor field and housing sanitation.
The migrant population has historically had a high incidence of both overimmunized and underimmunized children, he added.
Filling the gap
The health centers, which provide primary health care and additional obstetric services, are "a small program trying to fill a huge gap throughout the state," Pearce said.
Jose Martinez, executive director of the Institute of Human Resource Development, a private, non-profit community-based organization, said his organization tries to serve the agricultural workers as well as the minority populations in Utah.
He said the institute has created 12 different projects to strengthen minority families, mobilize resources to migrant workers and provide data to other agencies to improve the quality of services to their families.
The Handicapped Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Project is one of the best-known programs. The project is a cooperative effort with the Division of Rehabilitation Services, providing outreach and referral services to physically or psychologically disabled agricultural workers.
Martinez said the program is desperately needed in Utah since migrant workers are "probably one of the most neglected members of society. They are very poor and face horrendous working conditions."
Martinez said even though the immigration law has pressured farmers to verify agricultural workers' legal status, illegal farmworkers will continue to get work in the United States.
"There is a black market for social security cards and other forms of identification. America is dependent on (migrants)," Martinez said. "They take jobs that most Americans don't like to do. It's hard work and it's seasonal."
Jerry Ortega, director of the Migrant Education Program in Utah, said the main mission of migrant education is to teach migrant children reading, mathematics and other curriculum necessary to succeed in school. He said the program also offers health services.
His program only lasts six to eight weeks, from June through August, when crops in Utah are peaking. The program serves approximately 1,200 students. It offers 10 programs administered through local school districts from Smithfield in Cache Valley down to Beryl Junction, west of Cedar City.
Ortega said the federal government allocated $290 million for migrant education in the United States. Utah receives $800,000 yearly.
But despite inflation, the level of funding is the same as 10 years ago. "We don't have enough money. We don't provide enough support and health services for the families, plus a lot of our programs are small, and we have reduced their funding over the last five years.
"It does hurt them (migrant children)," Ortega said.
Migrant children are at least two years behind, with some experiencing learning disabilities and major educational challenges, he said. Between 45 percent and 90 percent of these students drop out of school before they complete the 12th grade. The national drop-out rate for all students is between 25 percent and 30 percent.
"We have to continue working with parents so they can encourage their kids to stay in school and help them continue their educations.
"There's not been enough attention or resources made available to them with the level of funding and lack of real administration from the Bush administration. He's claimed to be an `education president,' but I don't see any results and there's been no increase in funding," Ortega said.
"The migrant parents . . . that's their lifestyle. They are there by choice, but they don't want their children to follow. They want their kids to stay in school, but there's got to be more than that.
"It takes more than words."
Did you know...?
- The Labor Department says experts believe there may be 300,000 to 1.25 million illegal aliens working in American agriculture.
- The Agriculture Department wanted the government to include livestock in the definition of perishable commodities. But the rules explicitly exclude livestock, along with poultry, dairy products, cotton, earthworms, fish, oysters, rabbits, hay, honey, horses, soybeans, wool and sugar cane.
- Although there are other important factors, the search for economic opportunity is the primary reason for most unauthorized migration to the United States.
- No shortage of fruit pickers has been reported in Utah, despite growers' concerns that new immigration laws would limit the number of available farm workers.
- The United States has a number of businesses that rely on cheap labor.
- A quarter-million illegal aliens applied for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
- Experts say border arrests have decreased by 50 percent since the 1986 act was implemented.
- Some reports suggest many workers who don't qualify for amnesty under the act are going home or moving to Canada.
- When the 1986 act was first implemented, some employers fired workers who hadn't yet been granted legal residency under the act's amnesty provisions, even though the IRS says workers who have applied for amnesty, or said they would, could keep their jobs.
- Every employer in Utah, since Nov. 6 of 1987, must check the legal status of all employees hired after Nov. 6, 1986, or face the threat of criminal penalties. Sanctions could cost as much as $10,000 in fines and six months in prison for each illegal alien hired.