Fear Infests Cherry Crop

Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press, July 28

One migrant worker was arrested on his way home from the hospital. Another was whisked away while picking cherries on a farm.

They’ve disappeared from Mexican grocery stores, Spanish dances at VFW halls and Catholic churches.

The stories are often the same: A worker runs an errand and vanishes. A week, maybe two, later, the phone rings. The migrant calls from Mexico; the immigration papers didn’t check out.

Such reports are spreading faster than wind, blowing through migrant worker communities in a five-county patch of northwestern Michigan, an area, as it happens, that produces a big chunk of the state’s strawberries, cherries, wine grapes and peaches.

Many farmers are bracing for the worst labor shortage in memory and the prospect of watching their crops rot. Migrant workers depend on that work for money to send to their families in Mexico. Fruit retailers depend on the harvest for summer income.

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Matt Albence sympathizes with farmers, but the deputy special agent in charge of Immigration Customs Enforcement for the Detroit region, which includes the fruit country, said the fear and paranoia is unfounded.

Though more resources have been pumped into border patrol and immigration the past couple of years, he said there haven’t been any sweeps.

“We just don’t have the resources to go driving around picking people up,” he said.

He said percolating rumors are likely the result of a few random pickups, where local cops have stopped someone for a vehicle infraction or the like and called in immigration officials. Sheriffs and police chiefs also say there hasn’t been an increase in migrant arrests.

But like so many other things, perception becomes its own truth. The paranoia is so intense in Traverse City and north into the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas that many migrant workers refuse to leave their homes except for work, and even then, make the trek with a thumping chest.

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