Sodus residents take stand for illegal farmworkers
Diana Louise Carter • Staff writer
On any given Sunday in the
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
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
"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
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
Growth in security
"We are just good people. We don't bother anybody," said a 35-year-old
migrant worker from
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
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
Migrant advocate Wood said the
Blaming the surge in enforcement, some farmers are reporting labor
shortages as workers leave or avoid the area.
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.
It's hard on the whole family, she said. "It's even harder to see the little kids asking for their father."
"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
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
"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
Although the Canadian border is the Border Patrol's primary focus, Price
said about half the people his agency detains are Mexican nationals.
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."
"It seems to me that there's a lot of evidence that there's a different
policy on the ground in
But citizens can't just pick which laws they want enforced, said Jim
Quinn, Conservative Party Chairman for
"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
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.
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
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'
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
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."