August 9, 2009


Sodus residents take stand for illegal farmworkers


Diana Louise Carter • Staff writer

On any given Sunday in the Wayne County village of Sodus, people stand outside a small Catholic church, attempting to quietly interfere with the work of the U.S. Border Patrol.

As these people, most of whom are white, stand watch at the Church of the Epiphany, brown-skinned people gather inside to hear a priest and a nun leading the Spanish-language Mass. Group members standing watch don't carry signs because they don't want people to beep car horns in support or derision — either of which would disturb the church service.

The citizens are taking a weekly stand against U.S. policy on immigration, calling attention to a system whose enforcement they say is unjust and even racist. Moreover, they say it endangers the Sodus economy, which is predominantly fueled by agriculture and the illegal aliens who work on many local farms.

While federal lawmakers are getting ready to take another stab at fixing the controversial situation, a local group called Migrant Support Services has formed to bear witness to, and prevent persecution of, Latino farmworkers in and around the village of 5,200.

"This is happening in small-town America," said Dr. John "Lory" Ghertner, 60, a Sodus nursing home owner turned social justice advocate.

Some of the Mexican church-goers are illegal immigrants, having come to the Sodus area to take advantage of plentiful farm jobs. Experts estimate about 8,000 farmworkers are in Wayne County, drawn by the work that comes with being the second-largest apple-producing county in the U.S.

"We've had farmworkers here forever. It's the way this community has always operated," said Denise Devalk, 58, a member of the church watch group who patrolled the roads one recent Sunday looking for the familiar white-and-green Border Patrol cars. If she had seen the patrol, she would have called the church to put out the word that it was unsafe to attend Mass. If the cars had shown up during Mass, the priest would have been contacted to inform the congregation to stay inside until the roads were clear.

The church watch, which includes a Jewish doctor, students, teachers, Mexican-American citizens, Catholic nuns and others, started after an incident that outraged local residents. Nearly two years ago, a Mexican farmworker riding his bike to Sunday Mass was stopped by a Border Patrol officer, arrested and deported.

"People ought to have the right to assemble in the church of their choice," said Jim Wood, a 62-year-old teacher from Sodus who participates in the church watch.

The 120 volunteers involved in Migrant Support Services also deliver monthly food baskets to year-round farmworker families whose breadwinners were deported. They bring supplies to farmworkers too afraid to leave their employers' farms. They post bail when a worker is detained by federal agents and held in Batavia, about 70 miles away. They've even temporarily housed U.S.-born children of foreign workers who've been whisked away by government agents.


Growth in security

Eight years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a subsequent security buildup to secure the borders, U.S. Border Patrol agents are seen daily in Rochester and neighboring counties patrolling international shores and transportation hubs. But many Sodus residents believe Homeland Security agencies are making easy arrests by trolling for foreign farmworkers.

"We are just good people. We don't bother anybody," said a 35-year-old migrant worker from Mexico who works on a Wayne County farm. The man, who has been in the area for almost 10 years, asked to be identified only as "Jorge" so he wouldn't get deported. "We don't think about that — that we are breaking the law" by crossing the border illegally, he said. "We see a brighter future."

Both the Border Patrol and the other Homeland Security agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, say they don't cruise around just looking for random Mexicans to arrest. But their resources have grown substantially in the last few years.

"In the past two years we've grown 170 percent," said A.J. Price, supervisory Border Patrol agent at the Buffalo-region office in Grand Island, Erie County, referring to staffing for the region office. That office covers the Canadian border from the Ohio/Pennsylvania state line to Wellesley Island on the St. Lawrence River.

Meanwhile, according to fact sheets for ICE, established in 2003, that agency's annual budget has grown 80.7 percent in the last five years. Detention and removal of illegal aliens, an ICE activity that accounted for 34 percent of the agency's $3.2 billion budget in 2005, has risen 132 percent in five years, now amounting to 44 percent of the agency's total budget of $5.8 billion.

One measure of increased enforcement is Homeland Security's use of the Wayne County Jail in Lyons to hold immigration suspects before transferring them to a federal facility, or for violators when the federal center in Batavia is full. According to the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, 18 men were held in Lyons on immigration charges in 2005. In 2008, 265 men and 119 women were held.

Migrant advocate Wood said the United States has invested heavily in protecting the country's borders. But arresting farmworkers "is a distraction. This isn't keeping us safe at all," he said.

Blaming the surge in enforcement, some farmers are reporting labor shortages as workers leave or avoid the area.

Ghertner, an organizer of Migrant Support Services, charges that frequent visits to Wayne County by the Border Patrol and ICE, along with several memorable recent raids, amount to a campaign of intimidation. He said the bicyclist's arrest that started the resistance movement smacks of illegal racial profiling.

Many of the workers are afraid to go anywhere for fear of being arrested, he said. Despite the church watch, attendance at the Spanish Mass is down about 50 percent.

"Our population here lives in utter fear," Ghertner said.

Sodus native Melissa Cervantes, 16, whose parents are naturalized citizens, has an uncle who was deported recently, leaving behind her aunt and young cousins.

It's hard on the whole family, she said. "It's even harder to see the little kids asking for their father."

Searches targeted

Spokesmen for the Border Patrol and ICE deny the picture of enforcement that Migrant Support Services paints, but confirmed some details.

"All our operations are targeted. We don't drive around and look for people," said Michael W. Gilhooly, spokesman for the Northeast regional ICE office in Vermont. However, recently ICE has increased the searches for individuals who have been given an order of deportation.

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol's job in this area is preventing illegal crossings of the Canadian border and patrolling the shoreline, said Price. The Border Patrol routinely patrols train and bus stations. Price said the officers aren't trolling Wayne County.

"Unfortunately, we don't have enough manpower to do that," he said. He suggested that people may be confusing ICE agents, who are looking for fugitives, with Border Patrol officers. Or, they may see Border Patrol officers assisting another police agency, such as a state trooper, who pulls over a car for a moving violation and finds that no one in the car speaks English or has identification papers.

"... We always, always answer up to any other law enforcement agency that needs our assistance," Price said. Gilhooly said ICE agents do that, too.

Indeed, a sample of deportation cases heard in Federal District Court in Rochester last September and October shows a majority started with traffic stops. Local police officers called in the Border Patrol — sometimes from 90 miles away — to "assist with Spanish translations and subject identification," court documents said.

Although the Canadian border is the Border Patrol's primary focus, Price said about half the people his agency detains are Mexican nationals.

"Just because we encounter people who didn't cross in that area, that's gravy. That's fortuitous for us," he said.


Differing opinions

Members of the Migrant Support Services estimate the Border Patrol drives through Sodus several times a week. They say they've seen Border Patrol cars following school buses through the trailer park, where a number of farmworkers live. They say they've witnessed raids at fiestas held on fire department grounds.

Town Supervisor Steven LeRoy, who twice has written a county resolution asking for immigration reform, believes the Border Patrol is in town daily. "I saw one today!" he said recently.

As for the agency's assertion that it's in town mainly to help local police agencies, LeRoy said, "I don't believe that to be true at all."

U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei said he feels obligated to investigate — and is considering whether to hold congressional hearings — because of the allegations he's received of harassment of Latinos, including legal workers and citizens.

"It seems to me that there's a lot of evidence that there's a different policy on the ground in Wayne County than the Obama administration seems to have," said Maffei, D-DeWitt, Onondaga County. "Particularly if this is not a policy throughout the U.S. ... Why are they spending all this time aggravating people who are trying to go to church?"

But citizens can't just pick which laws they want enforced, said Jim Quinn, Conservative Party Chairman for Wayne County.

"I find it offensive that they're (the activists) writing editorials, telling the Border Patrol and local law enforcement how to enforce the law, what laws they're going to enforce," said Quinn, a retired Rochester police officer who lives in Sodus Point.

"Are illegal immigrants coming up here and picking apples a bigger concern than terrorists? Obviously not. But it's still against the law," he said.

LeRoy said some residents feel disgruntled about free government-sponsored health services available to illegal workers. "It really isn't fair that someone can come across the Mexican border and get free health care," when many U.S. citizens can't get the same, LeRoy said.

Nevertheless, LeRoy said, "The average Joe living in this community is just not going to perform this labor. These growers could never harvest their crops without this labor."

Federal agents rarely seem to look for illegal farmworkers on farms.

Immigration lawyer Walter H. Ruehle of Rochester said agents need to have warrants for specific individuals if they go onto private property. And an arrest is usually easier to make when there's no farmer around to get angry or coach the worker on his or her rights.

Phil Wagner, president of the Wayne County Farm Bureau, said the Border Patrol doesn't have the authority to come onto his fruit farm in Butler without a warrant. "If they come here, I wouldn't be intimidated," said Wagner, a retired two-star Army general.

But like many farmers, he was wary of saying too much, sharing a belief that public comments have a way of earning the unwanted attention of federal agents.

'Out of our hands'

Migrant Support Services was already doing church watches when ICE and Border Patrol agents raided the Sodus Trailer Park on Sept. 28, 2008. Lory Ghertner's wife, Nancy, 60, a film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, said migrant friends described teams of agents pounding on the doors of the trailer homes, demanding to know whether a person they had a photo of was inside.

The sweep netted 12 arrests. "Two of those individuals were targets of the operation and the others were found to be illegal aliens," Gilhooly wrote in an e-mail. Two were deported, one left the country voluntarily and nine still have pending cases, he said. It took a month for Gilhooly to provide this information, and he wouldn't provide names of and charges against the people arrested. "ICE does not release names of those aliens arrested administratively," he wrote.

Maria Peña, 55, co-owner of El Rincon, a Mexican restaurant in Sodus, takes out some of the little children of migrants for the day, because their parents can't.

"When they see a policeman, they are afraid," Peña said of these U.S.-born children. "Last year when (federal agents) went into the trailer park, it was terrible. When they went into the homes, the kids saw pretty much everything."

In late June, the migrant ministries program at Church of the Epiphany thanked the Anglo community with a fiesta. After a demonstration of the dress and dancing styles of various Mexican regions, Sister Luci Romero spoke, with the Rev. Jesús Flores translating.

"Every Sunday, people call me and ask, 'Is the watch group outside the church?'" Romero said through Flores. She responds, "'Yes, there is a group, so you can feel comfortable to come.'"

The immigration situation is "out of our hands," she told the group, but added, "We feel so supported and we know the immigration officers know that you are outside and they take seriously your presence."