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"They used to call us illegals and now we’re essential": immigrant farmworkers continue to supply the U.S. with food during the pandemic

In this special report, we tour the farm fields of South Florida to meet some of the people who are hard at work during the coronavirus pandemic. In spite of fears around contracting COVID-19, thousands of immigrants are picking vegetables to make ends meet. Meanwhile, farmers are struggling to stay afloat during an unprecedented economic crisis.
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HOMESTEAD, Florida — It’s 6:00 a.m. and small lights glimmer like fireflies between rows of okra. Amidst narrow labyrinths, dozens of workers pick through the small bushes for vegetables that are perfectly ripe, at about 3 centimeters long. If another day passes, these crops will be impossible to sell.

Wearing head to toe coverings and carrying buckets, they crouch down, harvesting with precision. Even though they’re still showing up to work, many are scared of contracting the novel coronavirus. Worse, they wonder how they’ll pay their medical bills should they need medical attention. About 13,000 immigrants work in these fields in the farming town of Homestead, in South Florida, and most of them are undocumented. Taking time off is not an option.

Harvesting vegetables to send to tables across the United States is the way these workers make sure food gets to their own tables.

“Despite the fear and the pandemic, we’re here, we haven’t missed a day," says Blanca Rivas, a Guatemalan woman who has spent almost four decades in the United States, always in Homestead. She’s currently supervising work at Sifuentes Farms, distributing wooden boxes filled with the tender green okra. "We’re here picking vegetables, harvesting crops so that people can have a plate of food at home ... and we have no idea what tomorrow will bring.”

"If we don't work, we don't have money for our children to eat," she says.

The country began to feel the impact of COVID-19 in mid-March. As it spread, fears grew that the health system could be overwhelmed and that hospitals wouldn’t have the capacity to care for people.

But for many workers in Homestead, a lack of medical attention has always been the reality: most aren’t able to go to a doctor if they get sick because they don’t have health insurance.

To make matters worse, early in the crisis, when the government provided stimulus checks to households across the country, many of these workers were excluded because they’re undocumented or on visas that made them ineligible.

At least a dozen workers interviewed by Univision expressed fear that they will simply run out of money during the crisis.

Not even hurricanes have threatened to so drastically impact the job market in this farming town, which has helped Florida become the nation’s third-largest provider of fruits and vegetables. Because so many diverse crops—from okra and eggplant, to pumpkin and lychee—grow here, labor is usually available year-round.

"I’m scared but I have to work because if I stay home no one will support us,” says Teresa, a Mexican woman who's been in the U.S. for 17 years and hasn’t yet been able to get legal status, as is the case with many of Homestead's farmworkers. “We need money to pay the rent ... to pay for everything."

Teresita, as she’s called affectionately in the fields, works alongside her husband harvesting okra. When they work together they collect more—and faster. And more boxes means more money. They’d usually have about 20 or 30 boxes at the end of a day. But during the pandemic, their already meager income is drying up.

Farms feel the impact: "There was no way to sell the harvest"

As the coronavirus spread across the country, many farms in Homestead were full of crops that no one could buy.

"We were really impacted the first two weeks. They closed New York so we couldn’t export our products,” says Pedro Sifuentes, the co-owner, along with his brother, of Sifuentes Farms. “We had to plow over a lot of fields that we hadn’t yet harvested.”

He adds: “There was no way to sell the harvest. So we simply stopped production on much of the land, based on the market.”

Nobody was available to drive their okra to New York, the state most affected by the pandemic at the time and one of the main markets for selling the company’s crops. Wholesalers and restaurants closed, and the harvest began to clutter the company’s refrigerators. Before long, all of it was lost. The company reduced production by 60%, which had an immediate impact on revenue.

" We used the tractor to chop up the fields, we 100% removed them,” says Sifuentes, who arrived in the country in 1999 from Mexico and worked as a “picker” before managing to cultivate some 1,400 acres of his own. “There was less work for the workers and it was like starting over, downgrading production.”

That’s when many farmworkers began to feel the impact. There wasn’t much okra to collect, which meant fewer boxes and less money in their pockets. Still, many workers say they felt lucky not to be out of work completely, as was the case at many other area farms.

The crisis will see Florida farmers lose about $522 million this year, the state government estimates. Sifuentes says the goal is simply to ride out the crisis.

"We’re not so concerned anymore with making a lot of profit, we just want the business to survive and be able to support the workers,” he says. “We keep faith that, starting in October, November, there will be a vaccine and that everything can go back to how it was before.”

Since our visit to Homestead, coronavirus cases have increased sharply across Florida. By June 23, COVID-19 had infected 2,321 people in Homestead, up from 990 a month earlier, according to official data.

The anguish of the unemployed: "I owe the rent, electricity ... everything"

Melda Velázquez wasn’t as fortunate as the workers at Pedro Sifuentes’ farm. As soon as the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, she was let go from her job picking guava. The undocumented Guatemalan woman’s economic situation was already precarious; she is the mother of 10 children. But suddenly she felt tremendous anguish.

"I’m a single mom, I’m fighting for my kids to get ahead, but right now with everything happening I was left without a job. I owe the rent, I owe electricity, I owe everything," says Velázquez, fighting back tears. Her electric bill is now over $1,000, and she owes close to $2,000 in rent.

She now spends her days practically locked up at home with her 10 children, three grandchildren and daughter-in-law. In the afternoons she prepares a hearty dish for everyone, such as eggs and sausage. The day Univision News spoke with her, she had gone out to seek help from the Farm Workers Association of Florida, which has been providing food, clothes and masks to workers in need.

The government "helped all the people who are documented and they didn’t want to help us because we’re immigrants,” she says. “But we are all the same, it shouldn’t matter ... our children are from here. They were born here and they should be entitled to assistance.”

The $2.2 trillion economic relief package passed by Congress in late March left out some 5 million children who are U.S. citizens because one or both of their parents are undocumented. It also failed to provide for undocumented immigrants who pay taxes via a Personal Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN. According to figures from the Center for American Progress, in 2015 these immigrants paid about $13.7 billion in net taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

If the stimulus bill had included her, Velázquez would have received $1,200 for herself and another $500 for each of her children. But without a valid Social Security number, she wasn’t eligible.

It once again exposed just how vulnerable undocumented immigrants are in the United States.

"They used to call us illegals and now we’re essential,” says Claudia González, an organizer with the Farm Workers Association of Florida. “Who are the people out here working? Just look around to see who the workers are.”

A worker harvests okra early in the morning in a field in Homestead. Many here have not stopped working in spite of the coronavirus. Credit: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons

No financial aid for these workers

In Blanca Marín's family, the pandemic also brought job loss. The Guatemalan immigrant, a mother of three girls, is also angry that she didn’t receive government assistance in spite of religiously paying her taxes since she crossed into the United States five years ago.

She was fired from the nursery where she worked. Her husband was also let go. With two kids to look after at home, Marín dusted off her sewing machine, found patterns to sew masks, and got to work. She can now skillfully sew a mask in minutes.

Between selling her masks and an improvised car wash her husband set up, they’ve managed to cover part of their expenses.

“We feel a little sad, disappointed, because we’re always the people setting up an appointment in January to do our taxes,” she says. “Since I got here I was always told to do my taxes. I came without knowing and I asked why. They told me ‘That’s what’s going to help you.’”

González, of the farmworker organization, says these Homestead workers — deemed essential by the federal and state government — are in need of money to pay for basic services.

"The undocumented people are the ones crouched down like this, harvesting," says Sofía Santiago, a Mexican immigrant who works with her son, a recent high school graduate. She picks okra, a bush that sprouts vegetables very close to the ground.

"When you get home, you can't even go to the bathroom because of back pain. And the next day, it's the same thing all over again," she says.

But Santiago isn’t daunted by the pain or fatigue.
"Out of necessity, a person will do whatever type of work there is,” she says. “You’re happy when there’s work because that’s how you earn money to pay the bills, for the food, for whatever is needed at home.”

Touring the farm fields, in photos:

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