With the demand for workers in Pierson—the Fern Capital of the World—getting a fake Social Security card is easy.
“The bosses look at the cards and know they’re fake. But they don’t care,” said Salvador Moreno, a one-time fern cutter and illegal immigrant from Mexico.
It wasn’t always this way. When growers first planted fern in the early 1900s, they hired mostly blacks as pickers. But black people abandoned those jobs more than two decades ago. Since the early 1980s, the fields have been filled with Mexican workers, hunched over with small knives, cutting “hoja” and paid a per-piece rate of 25 cents a bundle.
The workers, from impoverished regions in Mexico, help to sustain the $70-million-a-year fern industry in Northwest Volusia.
At C. Frank Jones Fernery in Pierson, crew leader Florencio Rodriguez says he doesn’t even bother looking at his workers’ Social Security cards. He knows they buy fake ones for $100.
“Who am I, la migra (immigration)?” he says. Unlike the workers, Rodriguez and other crew leaders tend to be legal residents, having been in the United States long enough to rise through the ranks of undocumented to documented workers.
Crew leaders work for the fernery owners, and act as a sort of middleman. They hire workers. They provide transportation. And they keep track of how many bundles of fern get cut, determining each worker’s pay.
At Albin Hagstrom & Sons, another Pierson fernery, crew chief Jorge Bastidas says most of the 130 employees are illegal immigrants.
“Nobody but the crew leaders are legal,” he said. “The workers buy illegal green cards and Social Security numbers.”
But the fernery owners tell a different story. All of their workers are legal, they say.
“I’ve got the legal papers on all of them,” said Frank Jones, the third-generation owner of C. Frank Jones Fernery, and boss to Rodriquez.
Jones said he has no way of knowing if the Social Security cards and permanent-resident cards of his 10 to 15 employees are authentic.
“I take whatever they give me. I can’t ask questions: That would be racial profiling. I wouldn’t want a lawsuit on something like that,” he said.
Fern workers say some employers find ways to get around accepting fake Social Security cards. Regino Hernandez, 28, said he has worked 11 years for Greenlund Ferneries, owned by Pierson Town Council member Robert Greenlund. Hernandez doesn’t get a paycheck. Instead, the fernery writes a check to another employee, who cashes the check and pays him, Hernandez said.