America's Criminal Immigration Policy: How U.S. Law Punishes Hard Work and Fractures Families

Article excerpt

IN THE WEE HOURS of a Tuesday morning in December 2004, Buca's daughters, 10-year-old Darby and 4-year-old Daisy, reached up from their bed, hugged their daddy, and went back to sleep. Outside their back window, the sun was still waiting to cross the distant cattle pastures that rise up from the far bank of the New River valley, far below their mountaintop home in Ashe County, North Carolina. Buca (whose surname I am omitting to protect his family's identity) was among thousands of Mexican men flowing south from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the weeks before Christmas. The girls would not see him again until February.

Like a nativity set missing a figurine, this scene recurs almost every year. Five thousand of their very own Christmas trees grow around their home, right there next to the girls' trampoline and swing set, yet the Mexican border, 1,500 miles away, manages to divide the family at Christmas time. To comply with federal law, Buca must return to his native Veracruz, in southern Mexico, and renew his H-2A temporary guest worker visa or risk losing it and drawing up to $10,000 in fines for his employer. Except for one year, when he decided he couldn't afford it, Buca has made this trip every winter since December 2000. His wife, Amanda, remains in the North Carolina mountains illegally with their daughters, refusing to endure another dangerous border crossing on the return trip north.

At 35, Buca is a crew leader on a large commercial Christmas tree farm, helping his employers harvest more than 30,000 Fraser firs a year from an inventory of about half a million spread across three counties in North Carolina and southwest Virginia. The state of North Carolina exports about 5 million Fraser firs every year, or one out of every five Christmas trees sold in the United States. Buca's family fragmentation is common: Permanent resident green cards, even for parents of American citizens such as Darby and Daisy, are scarce (just over 700,000 were handed out in fiscal year 2003), and H-2A agricultural visas are for individual farm workers, not their families.

Buca is technically a "nonimmigrant worker" because his visa allows him to stay only as long as the Christmas tree growing season lasts, February through December. Amanda works as a nanny for the daughter and son-in-law of a local Baptist leader she met at church. She is ineligible for her husband's H-2A temporary agricultural visa. More than half of all U.S. farm workers have no legal working status at all. Most are men who cross the border with other men, looking for work to provide for their families. They raise your turkey in Minnesota, dig your potatoes in Idaho, pick your corn in Illinois, and scoop your cranberries from a Massachusetts bog. A good portion of their paychecks gets wired back to Guanajuato or Chiapas, so mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, and children can buy some meat, or books for school.

The agricultural, construction, and service industries have come to depend on these immigrants, yet the avenues for citizenship and full membership in American society are so narrow as to be closed completely for most foreign workers. More than 10 million illegals contribute the labor without which American society as we know it would stall, but unless the current immigration limits expand, our government will not recognize them as Americans. Legislators of both parties have proposed a plan to put illegal immigrants on a road to citizenship. Unless Congress approves it, men will continue to leave their families behind and risk their lives to improve them.

Some, like Buca, will manage to bring their families with them. They'll become our friends, neighbors, and community volunteers. But they won't be Americans.

I met Amanda and Buca in November 2004 at a Hispanic Baptist mission in rural Ashe County, population 25,000, which has seen its Hispanic population swell to at least 3,000 during recent fall harvests, just 20 years removed from when the area was almost exclusively white. …