SPECIAL REPORT: York farmers navigate immigration law

Jana Benscoter
York Dispatch
  • David Brown, president of Brown's Orchards & Farm Market, estimated he has anywhere from four up to 20 immigrants picking fruit on his farm daily.
  • In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor approved 777 of 821 farming positions in Pennsylvania, which were held by guest workers, according to the department.

Growing a product with a short shelf life and facing potential employee shortages, York County farmers are adept at cultivating a diverse workforce.

And that entails making choices about how — and in some cases, if — they should invest in an immigrant workforce.

David Brown, president of Brown’s Orchards and Farm Market, takes the extra time to verify his Mexican farm workers’ immigration documents, but he doesn't mind. It is worth it to have a steady workforce in his fields, he said.

Farmers need help when Americans aren't willing to do the work, Brown and others say.

It's been nearly 20 years since agricultural interests and congressional lawmakers were close to agreeing on policies that streamline legal entry of undocumented immigrants as well as address public safety concerns, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O'Neill said.

Depending on the season, Brown's Orchards employs upward of 20 immigrant workers, including many who have returned to the Springfield Township farm for years. Wednesday, June 28, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

"Right before 9/11 was the closest we've come," he explained, adding that lawmakers again have become involved — and more fully invested — in the process since that time.

Visa program: Agricultural worker programs need to change to make them less confusing and less financially demanding, O'Neill said.

When a domestic workforce isn't showing up, he said, farmers have the option of turning to the H-2A visa program. The temporary visa program helps farmers find guest workers, he said, but it's complicated. 

Dan and Karen Paulus, who own and operate Paulus Orchards in Dillsburg, are using the H-2A visa program for the first time this year. They began the process last fall, which Karen Paulus said was a "whole lot of back-and-forth paperwork" with a labor agency. The Pauluses didn't hire an attorney.

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Their guest workers showed up two weeks later than they wanted them, Dan Paulus said. The house where the workers stay had to be renovated and pass a house inspection, the 50-year-old farmer explained. 

"Some of the hoops are a little silly," Dan Paulus said. "We had to prove that there weren't U.S. workers begging to come out to this heat and pick fruit."

Karen Paulus, 48, said the agency recruited the workers and provided the Pauluses with their workers' names and experience. H-2A requires the Pauluses to pay for their workers' transportation, lodging and documentation to get them here, she said.  

The cost of using the program is higher, Karen Paulus said, but the benefit of it far exceeds its cost.

The risk is not knowing the workers' character, she said, but she added her workforce is "phenomenal," "outstanding," "very polite" and "incredibly respectful."

After a long day of working in 90-degree weather, the Pauluses treated their employees to Hershey's Ice Cream. 

"This farm is very good," Oscar Hernandez said. The 27-year-old from Mexico has worked on farms in Connecticut, Florida and Virginia. 

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"For the house, for the work, for me, it's fine," he said. "Everybody says it's good working, very good people." 

Karen Paulus said she hopes to retain their current workforce in future years to build a long-term rapport. 

Paulus Orchards migrant workers enjoy Hershey's Ice Cream after picking fruit in 90-degree weather. Jana Benscoter/photo

"It breaks my heart that their conditions are so bad that they have to leave their families for half a year," Karen Paulus said. "They don't want to be here, but the conditions there are bad. They send money back to their families."

Inconsistent: O'Neill said the H-2A visa program can be hit or miss. A farmer may or may not be able to rehire the same seasonal employees every year. The "frustration" is when workers aren't approved on time for specific dates. Farmers often have to hire an attorney to go through the process, too, he said.  

That's why Brown, 53, said he doesn't use the H-2A program. He said he's had a relationship with his documented immigrant farm help, which can be anywhere from four immigrants up to 20 immigrants daily, for years, some for over a decade. Very rarely does he not know who's working on his farm, he said. 

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The Browns have owned their farm for almost 70 years. During that time, they have been visited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Brown said he can recall them checking in at least one time within the past decade. 

"We might find out some of them were undocumented," he said, adding several then also chose not to show up for work the day after the agents visited. "The paperwork looked good, and we had every reason to believe they were legal."

Falsifying a document is a possibility, O'Neill said. 

"Could somebody falsify a document? It could happen," he said. 

Safety, security: Executive orders issued by President Donald Trump earlier this year — meant to clamp down on undocumented immigrants — haven't yet affected York County farmers in the same way they have others regionally and nationally, local farmers say.

And the idea behind monitoring undocumented immigrants is a welcome change in York County, some added. 

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor approved 777 of 821 farming positions for guest workers under H-2A in Pennsylvania, according to the department. That is just the number of workers who could be identified through a national agriculture survey, said Scott Sheely, special assistant for workforce development for the state Department of Agriculture.

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The federal department 10 years ago did not keep records of the number of H-2A visas administered in Pennsylvania, Sheely said.

Throughout that time, changes to the program have caused "increased obstacles" for farmers, the American Farm Bureau Federation reports. Now that there's more of a handle on how many guest workers are here annually, farmers say they are faced with more bureaucracy.

A greater number of farmers — 35 percent — claim to have been audited since having entered the program, the federation reports. 

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New Salem resident Basil Armstrong said he's fine with farmers hiring immigrants and documented visa holders as farm help. 

"So long as you follow the law, I don't see why legal migrants can't work here," he said. 

Enforcement of existing laws isn't the problem as much as the pace of legal entry, Brown explained. Undocumented immigrants need either a faster pathway to citizenship or quicker approval through the visa agricultural program, officials said.

"We want the agriculture industry in the United States to grow," Brown said. "So, if that means we can get good folks outside of this country, and we don't have the folks in the country who want to do it, we need to come up with a solution to get them here legally."

Labor shortage: Despite any challenges his farm may encounter trying to hire workers, Brown said, he'd still comb the community for either more legal immigrants or Americans willing to pick his crops. 

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These days, he admitted, it's a "little bit harder to get kids" to want to work in the elements: rain, heat and humidity. 

Like Brown's Orchards, Flinchbaugh's Orchard and Farm Market doesn't hire through the H-2A program. 

"We currently don't have any migrant employees," said assistant manager Becky Krape. 

Krape, who has been working at Flinchbaugh's for 11 years, said the farm maintains its annual seasonal labor from locals. 

Basil Armstrong shops at the Markets at Shrewsbury. Armstrong said migrant workers should be allowed to work in America; however, they need to comply with the law. Jana Benscoter/photo

New Salem resident Armstrong, 72, said he favors government following the law. 

"I know people who use the visa program, but once your time has expired, you have to leave," Armstrong said.