The vehicle, compact and quiet, approached the out-building where we were to meet — the farm worker, the interpreter and myself. Jorge’s smile was welcoming, yet restrained, and his eyes expressed curiosity. Or was it disbelief that his story should be of interest to anyone?
Yet, his handshake was firm and I knew immediately that he understood English but was shy about speaking it. Perhaps he had that same sense about me and my Spanish. Our conversation was three-way, yet we were speaking directly to one another, each in our language of comfort. We talked about his four young sons.
That the boys are the center of his life may not be immediately apparent to those who meet him for the first time. Perhaps not even to friends and co-workers who know him well. But, when his court case came up at the Northwest Detention Center, there was no question at all in the judge’s mind about Jorge’s priorities. They were absolutely clear when considered through the words of his boys.
At his bond hearing last spring, Jorge’s attorney presented the judge with a thick file of documentation — proof of his long residency in Washington state; proof of his employment history; a message from his employer attesting to “his many skills,” critical and unique to this farming operation; and, perhaps most importantly, a letter from each of his sons demonstrating the strength of their family ties. Each letter is distinctive. Each reflects the personality, the interests, and the concerns of the son who wrote it.
Three of the boys, Lucas, 13, Mateo, 15, and Guillermo, 17, are in high school. Antonio (10), is in elementary school. Each boy stated clearly and definitely why his father was needed here at home in the United States. Needed by them and by their mother. Needed for reasons important to boys growing up in a complex world, made even more complicated for them because they were born here and are U.S. citizens while their father is an undocumented immigrant.
“Dear Judge,” wrote Antonio, “I need My Dad here in the U.S. because he’s my dad. He works a lot and he takes care of me and he loves me. I was born with deformed hands. I have had two surgeries and have to have more. I am scared to have more surgeries without my dad…. I want my dad to make it to one of my baseball game because he told me that he will. I want him to watch me pitch at my game. If he goes back to Mexico he won’t make it to my game…”
When asked about Antonio’s games, Jorge’s smile is huge. His eyes sparkle. “Right now, he is playing football like his two next oldest brothers. But baseball is his passion. When it is baseball season, he hopes to be pitching for his team again.”
And what about Antonio’s hands — do they interfere with his ability to play? To pitch? — Jorge shakes his head vigorously. “No. No, they don’t. He’s had two surgeries already. One hand is good now. But his right hand needs another surgery. His pitching hand. But he will be okay.” Antonio’s condition is congenital. “It is from his mother’s side of the family. One of her uncles has it. And one of her sister’s sons. It always seems to be the boys who get it. But my other boys are fine.”
Lucas, the 13-year-old wrote of how the dynamic of the family would change if the judge decided to deport their dad. “He helps my mother out. He’s always been by her side, even through the toughest times,” Lucas wrote. “He tries his hardest to make sure we’re happy… he is a great father and it would almost be impossible for us to make it…”
Fifteen-year-old brother, Mateo, also worried about the practical aspects of life should his father be deported. “We would be low on money … low on food because we will have no money. My family wouldn’t be happy. My brothers [and] my mom would be so sad. We would go down and see him after a long time but after would still put us even further in money problems.”
Mateo worried, too, about how his father’s absence might affect him, personally. “I’d be so depressed, I’d be mad at school and at home … I wouldn’t do good in school … bad grades … I’d get in a lot of trouble. I’d drop out of sports and [go to] work because we would be behind in bills. I wouldn’t have a dad there to support me.”
Guillermo, the oldest, is the creative one, according to Jorge, and not so interested in sports as are his younger brothers. Too, he is beginning to see how his dad is already influencing the sort of father he, himself, may someday become. Not surprisingly, it is Guillermo’s more mature view of his father that appears the most all-encompassing. “My dad will teach me things in the future that I will need to know how to do. He also shows the love and care that a father should for his children. He keeps me in my place sometimes and without him I would feel kind of empty… He’s always there for my brothers and me…”
A powerful group of letters! Does Jorge think that they made a big difference in the outcome of his hearing? He shrugs noncommittally and his smile disappears. Suddenly, he looks older, more world-weary, and the worry lines around his eyes seem more deeply etched. “I think it is a matter of luck,” he says. “Just luck.”
Jorge describes other prisoners he met at the Northwest Detention Center. “Some of them had many more problems than I — more kids, more medical needs. And their records were clean, too. Yet, they were not bonded back into their communities. They were still in prison. It’s just luck…
“What if the judge had been sick that day and someone else had heard my case? Or what if the judge had a headache. Or disliked the name ‘Jorge.’ I don’t think the letters hurt. But I don’t know how much they helped, either.” That practical, no-nonsense attitude again. The same face-it-head-on attitude expressed by his four sons as they pleaded their father’s case in their carefully handwritten letters.
By now, Jorge’s confidence has increased and his English is strong and clear. The topic: soccer! “The team is in Astoria. We play in many places — all over the Northwest,” he told me with enthusiasm. “He has many trophies,” the interpreter added quietly. Jorge looked pleased, but said only, “I like playing very much.”
He expresses pleasure, too, about living on the Peninsula and about his work on the farm. “Better than working in a factory in the city,” he says. “Better than any other jobs I have had. I feel at home here,” and with that, Jorge excuses himself to get back to work, his confident stride and farewell salute seem almost a testament to the faith placed in him by his four young sons — “because he works hard” — “because he takes care of us” — “because he teaches me things” — “because he’s my dad.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Increasing immigration enforcement since the inauguration of President Donald Trump is an important story in Pacific County and elsewhere in the nation. But it’s a difficult story to tell, because the people most affected — undocumented immigrants — are often afraid to speak to authorities, including the news media. Chinook Observer columnist and retired teacher Sydney Stevens is writing this series, “Stories from the heart,” in an unconventional way that mostly avoids specifically identifying the people she is reporting about. Their quotes are real, their stories are real. We hope it will help illuminate this issue that is having profound impacts on Pacific County’s families, culture and economy.
The needs on farms in our area are not substantially different from the needs of other agricultural areas in our country. We depend upon workers to plant, fertilize, cultivate, spray, irrigate and harvest crops under our supervision. The hours are long and the work physically taxing. Unfortunately, local, native-born workers simply do not seek jobs in agriculture in the numbers we need them. On this fifth-generation family farm, like other farms in the area, we have long been dependent upon a foreign-born workforce.
Too, we require year-round workers rather than seasonal employees. Yet, at the present time there is only one visa, the H-2A, which allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill agricultural jobs. The jobs must be temporary in nature — no longer than ten months in duration. Because the work here is not temporary or seasonal, the H-2A visas do not apply. There is not an equivalent program for year-round workers.
As Congress struggles with immigration reform, one possibility under consideration is a program proposed by the Senate. If implemented, it would admit workers with less than a bachelor’s degree to work in year-round jobs with the option to become permanent residents if sponsored by an employer. For family farms like this one, the passage of such a proposal would be a perfect solution.
Right now, the only lawful path toward permanent residence and citizenship for undocumented farmworkers is through a difficult and uncertain procedure which can only begin when a worker has been arrested by ICE and then bonded back into the community. It is an inhumane process, tearing families apart and putting impossible pressures on employees and employers alike. Meanwhile, our family farms, long the foundation of a strong agrarian economy, are becoming an endangered species and small rural communities such as ours are threatened with the loss of their historic character.