Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 20, 2013

'It's not easy being a migrant,' panelists say

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Migrant workers play an important role in Michigan, state agriculture and local economies, but their numbers may be shrinking as a result of several factors, including highly politicized immigration reform rhetoric and complex policies.

It’s a serious problem with troubling ramifications for Michigan farmers who depend on experienced and skilled migrant workers to harvest handpicked fruits and vegetables, a panel of four said during a recent discussion at the History Center of Traverse City.

For panelist Jim Bardenhagen, an area fruit and vegetable farmer and retired 20-year Leelanau County extension director, the complex issue of migrant workers and immigration reform can be boiled down into a one question.

“Do you want to import workers or food?” he asked.

Other speakers on the panel included:

Steve Morse, retired Notre Dame law professor and member of the Grand Traverse League of Women Voters’ Farm Labor Task Force; Gladys Muñoz, local civil rights advocate, medical interpreter and 2013 Traverse City Human Right’s Commission Sarah Hardy Humanitarian Award winner; and Ana Garcia, 24, a former Leelanau migrant worker who now works as a summer migrant school recruiter for the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District and a Michigan State University education program.

Melissa Claramunt, a Michigan Department of Civil Rights specialist, moderated the discussion that capped the History Center’s month-long Legends exhibit that focused in part on migrant workers.

Panelists listed several reasons for the worker shortage, among them:

n A lack of understanding and appreciation of the importance of migrant labor to Michigan farmers by the general public and Legislature.

n Non-migrant Michigan workers do not seek migrant jobs, nor do they have the skills, experience and endurance it takes to perform them.

* Current immigration laws and policies are a “mess” - complex, cumbersome, often mean-hearted and result in racial profiling.

* Michigan laws that deny driver licenses to undocumented migrant workers, who cannot work without transportation.

* Many migrant workers and families refuse to drive through states like Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina that have adopted sweeping “show me your papers” laws that make it a state crime to be in the country illegally and require an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest to, when practical, ask about a person’s legal status.

* Many migrants think Michigan adopted such a law because a similar law was introduced but not approved.

Panelists also noted that the public often does not understand that most fresh produce sold in American grocery stores is picked by migrant laborers somewhere.

“It’s not easy being a migrant worker,” Morse said. “If anyone understands the problem of migrant workers, it’s the farmers.”

The panel discussion was part of the History Center’s fall “Legends of the Grand Traverse Region: Community out of Diversity” project, which focused in part on the area’s migrant workers.