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Many undocumented farm laborers are in the country looking for real, hard work — and our agricultural system has come to crucially depend on them. Others, like Dolores Bustamante, have fled a dangerous situation. But undocumented immigrants face a lot of barriers, and it's creating a situation of isolation

For undocumented workers, a rock and a hard place 

For Dolores Bustamante, driving a car is a symbol of independence. It's also a necessity. A farm worker in rural Wayne County, she needs transportation to get to work and to buy food and take care of other personal needs. But because Bustamante is an undocumented worker, she can't get a driver's license. So even her driving is illegal.

Thirteen years ago, Bustamante and her 3-year-old daughter fled their home in Mexico to escape an abusive relationship.

"Unfortunately, I was a victim of violence," Bustamante said in an interview last weekend, through a translator. There were limited opportunities for women in Morelos, Mexico, and "I had to depend on someone," she said. "I wanted to make a life for myself, so I wouldn't experience abuse. When I finally was able to depend on myself, that's when I was pulled over and turned over to Immigration."

Bustamante has been an apple farm worker in Wayne County for several years, and is seen by many as an important community member and advocate for farm workers' rights Upstate. But because she is an undocumented immigrant, when she was pulled over by state police in 2014 for speeding, she was handed over to immigration authorities. She now faces deportation, and if she wants her daughter to stay in the US, she'll be separated from her.

There is a spot between a rock and a hard place that many undocumented immigrants, like Bustamante, find themselves in. Coming to the US through the system with a visa or refugee status takes months or, more likely, years. It's doubtful that Bustamante would even fit the criteria for either possibility. And once someone is in the country illegally, there aren't many ways to gain legal status. While political rhetoric around immigration tends to focus on violent criminals, non-violent immigrants often get caught up by policies that don't make a distinction.

Many undocumented farm laborers are in the country looking for real, hard work — and our agricultural system has come to crucially depend on them. Others, like Bustamante, have fled a dangerous situation. But undocumented immigrants face a lot of barriers, such as the inability to have a driver's license and a restrictive immigration system that weighs everyone who is here illegally by the same measure as those violent criminals. That's forcing many immigrants living in rural New York to become ever more isolated, advocates say.

"We only want to work to get our families ahead and be OK," Bustamante said, "and not fear what could happen. If we have to call the police, and then they come and ask for my papers...."

"I want people to know that people suffer," she said. "We are human; we feel it. And it's hard to separate from your family. We aren't criminals. We came to work. We want to help our families."

When Bustamante came to the US, she found her way to New Jersey, where she had to work two jobs for a while to make ends meet. She meant too little time with her daughter, so she decided to take a job in Florida as a farm worker. "It was really hard work," she said. "But I got to spend more time with my daughter."

In 2009, she followed the seasons up to New York State to work on apple farms for a few months. She went back to Florida but in 2012 moved back to New York to live year-round. Since then, she's become an active member of the Workers' Center of Central New York, and a leader in Alianza de Mujeres Campesinas, a group that's sent her to speak at Harvard Law School twice — once about female farmworkers and another time about sustainable agriculture.

Still, when she was pulled over in 2014, Customs and Border Protection was called.

"Along the northern border, we have been facing unprecedented numbers of people being turned over to Border Patrol by our local law enforcement," says Carly Fox, a workers rights advocate with the Worker Justice Center of New York. "And it's caused a real fear of law enforcement by those who are targeted. And in most of the country, that doesn't happen."

Another immigrant farm worker and labor activist, José Coyote Pérez, is currently being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia. Pérez has been in the US for 15 years, has a wife and children, and has a US work permit. A previous ICE case — apparently a result of a previous minor traffic violation — was closed in September 2016, but on February 24, Pérez reported for a check-in and was arrested. The reason for the arrest isn't immediately clear, Fox says. Some advocates believe it is related to a 911 call Pérez made two days before after being assaulted by a co-worker.

"Dolores and José have both been highlighting what's been going on in the community," says John Ghertner of the Greater Rochester Coalition for Immigration Justice. "I'm not going to say test case, but they are emblematic of what's going on."

Ghertner says things have recently started to heat up. National rhetoric, especially from President Donald Trump, has "just sent this almost palpable sense of fear back into the community of farm workers," says Ghertner. "Now more and more people are being picked up. They're given less opportunity to defend themselves. And the ones that are detained: they're given less opportunity to get bail so they can get out and defend themselves."

For undocumented farm workers, there just aren't many defenses, and that's leaving many feeling isolated and wary of law enforcement. Advocates are pushing to educate local law enforcement agencies about the impact of their policies, and groups like Green Light NY are campaigning for driver's license access for undocumented residents.

Meanwhile, Bustamante is appealing her deportation case. She had a court hearing on March 15, and was given 60 days until her next hearing. If she were to be deported, her daughter would be allowed to stay under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

"I don't know exactly what's going to happen," she said last weekend. "But I feel like right now I have a little time to spend with my daughter and cherish these moments."

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