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Published October 26, 2010, 03:05 PM

Harvest time highlights Latinos’ agricultural role

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Leonor Rodriguez has a message for Latinos in eastern Idaho whose bad behavior tends to put all Latino immigrants in a bad light: Go away.

By: Sven Berg, The Post Register

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Leonor Rodriguez has a message for Latinos in eastern Idaho whose bad behavior tends to put all Latino immigrants in a bad light: Go away.

Like most Latinos who immigrate to the United States, Rodriguez came here to provide for her family. Like many, she went to work in agriculture, spending four years working for Larsen Farms in Hamer.

Like most Latino immigrants, what she misses most about her home country of Mexico is her family.

“Sometimes family members die, and you can’t go (to Mexico to visit),’“‘ Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who still lives in Hamer with her husband and four children, said she’s tired of all Mexicans being painted with the same brush every time a few Latinos — some of whom aren’t even from Mexico — commit a crime or otherwise stray from the straight and narrow.

“We came to work. We didn’t come to steal or to do things we shouldn’t do,” she said. “To those that come to do bad things, ‘Go away.”‘

As harvest hits full swing in eastern Idaho, we are reminded once again of the role that Latinos play in one of the state’s major industries. According to Idaho Department of Labor estimates, some 7,700 Latinos work in agriculture statewide. That’s about 8.2 percent of Idaho’s entire agricultural labor force.

“Clearly (Latinos) are significant,” Labor Department spokesman Bob Fick said. “You reduce any labor force by 8 percent, you’re going to put the arm on somebody. I mean, you’re going to cause problems.”

The uncomfortable truth is that many Latinos working in agriculture live in this country illegally — whether they entered illegally or overstayed their visas. An even more uncomfortable truth is that Idaho’s farms, economists and farmers say, need illegal immigrants to cultivate and harvest the food we all eat.

Most uncomfortable of all is the fact that natural economic incentives make illegal immigrants more attractive workers. A worker with no rights will work hard and cheap and avoid trouble so as not to risk losing his or her job.

“The employers know that they can pay less and get the same service or even better service,” said Abelardo Rodriguez, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at the University of Idaho. “There are very few people who were born here in the United States that want to do those tasks.”

Even Tom Holm, who farms potatoes, wheat and alfalfa in eastern Idaho, and whose workers described him as a kind, fair boss who treats them well, acknowledged this perverse incentive. In the early 1980s, Holm said, finding illegal immigrants to do intense farm labor was easy. That was before Congress, with the backing of President Ronald Reagan, allowed amnesty for illegal immigrants in 1986.

After the amnesty law passed, Holm said, Latino laborers were harder to find because the law opened the door for them to jobs in construction and other industries.

“It was nice to have them illegal because they’d be out on the farm just working and hiding,” Holm said.

To be clear, there’s no reason to believe Holm actively works to keep his employees from becoming legal residents and citizens of this country. In fact, Jesus Carrillo, who has worked for Holm since 1988 and will continue to do so “until I can’t work anymore or until they kick me out,” said Holm helped him on a number of occasions to navigate the path toward citizenship.

Asked whether he’s looking forward to voting, Carrillo, who became a citizen earlier this year, said, “Of course I am.”

“Because now, supposedly, I’m an American. Now I have to choose my president,” Carrillo said.

But Carrillo’s success story is something of an exception.

Some Latinos find it easier to simply avoid the United States’ expensive and labyrinthine immigration process. And so they live in fear of the day they’re discovered and sent packing.

“That’s also a psychological factor that sometimes depresses you,” said Augusto Gomez, a Peruvian native who also works for Holm.

Gomez said all Latino immigrants “long for” the day they become citizens.

“It’s logical,” he said. “It’s the dream of all people, right?”

Many Latino agricultural workers live in what most Americans would call abject poverty. Andrea Leander, whose duties with the Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership include helping area Latinos survive the rough patches in their lives, said most don’t even know that assistance is available to them, and some who do are too proud to use it.

“They’re barely subsisting. I mean, it’s a horrible existence,” she said. “I don’t know how they do it.”

Leander said she’s particularly concerned about families who live in substandard housing that are more likely than American-born citizens to suffer tragedies like the June fire that killed a family of five Latinos, at least some of whom worked on a farm northwest of Idaho Falls. Due in part to the language barrier, she said, basic information about how they can protect themselves often eludes Latinos.

“They don’t get that kind of information — safety information — and they’re not going to ask for it because a lot of them aren’t here legally and they don’t want to call attention to themselves,” Leander said. “They’re like targets for something bad to happen.”

Partly, the plight of Latinos in America is due to the fact that many immigrants are equipped with little or no work skills, Abelardo Rodriguez said. Skilled laborers and educated workers more often stay in their home countries where they have well-paying, prestigious jobs, he said.

Those who aren’t skilled or educated can’t find jobs to support their families in their home countries.

“(Latinos in the U.S.) tend to predominate in the low-skilled employment,” Abelardo Rodriguez said. “They are just responding to the labor market. The labor market has a high demand for these individuals here.”

Leonor Rodriguez said hard economic times have affected her family’s financial state. She said her husband’s wages have been cut and that, sometimes, the family can’t make ends meet.

But the lack of prosperity isn’t her biggest complaint. As always, it is the family that matters most to her.

“Here (in the United States), it’s all work, and you almost don’t have time to spend with the family,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t enjoy our children like we should.”