I-TEAM: Undocumented workers on farms in Mid-Michigan - WNEM TV 5

I-TEAM: Undocumented workers on farms in Mid-Michigan

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From Mexico to Michigan, they leave their homeland behind in search of a better life.

Often they find it on farms. Undocumented workers are doing the work no one else will. There’s the occasional crackdown, but more often than not, the work goes on without any action taken.

“They’re hard workers. From sunup to sundown and they just want to make a living,” said David Gamez, Saginaw County community leader and activist for the Latino community.

The life of dairy farm workers consist of long hours and challenging conditions. It’s a hard job to fill. If you’re from Mid-Michigan, you don’t generally aspire to it.

The I-Team found a steady stream of undocumented workers willing and able to get the job done.

“They are providing a service for this community and for this country,” Gamez said. “If the undocumented would have been sent back, I wouldn’t be here today.”

His grandparents left Mexico for a better life in Michigan. The successful university graduate eventually established a series of health clinics in Mid-Michigan.

“It’s very disconcerting to me, and I feel bad for some of them who are caught in the system,” Gamez said.

Dozens of undocumented farm workers have been deported over the past few years, but the I-Team discovered the pipeline is unblocked. Most of the migrants make their way back.

“The jobs are pretty hard work and they’re dirty work,” said Terry Brown, Thumb-area resident.

Brown has lived his entire life in the Thumb. He was a Democratic state lawmaker in a Republican stronghold.

He worked with fellow lawmakers to help the dairy farms who need the workers.

“Drawing from a rural community it’s hard to get people to work,” Brown said.

Huron County Sheriff Kelly Hanson has conducted several investigations involving undocumented illegal workers. He said the ones that are deported usually make their ways back to the farms.

Hanson worries more about the small number of illegals with more on their minds than farm work.

“In the past, narcotics were muled up here. We know that. We’ve worked with ICE on that. We’ve looked into it ourselves,” Hanson said.

It’s a growing fear across the nation. Last summer a 45-year-old undocumented immigrant shot and killed an innocent bystander in San Francisco. He was a repeat felon who was deported five times to Mexico before coming back.

There has been nothing of that magnitude in Mid-Michigan, but Hanson fears residents are taking the threat too lightly.

“I’ve heard as recently as a few weeks ago that there was no bond and the situation involved a criminal issue with illegals. There was no need for bond, they were just released. Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Hanson said.

Meanwhile, Brown said when he was in office hundreds of workers were sent home to Mexico, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

“I don’t think that’s a great way for the government to do business because in a couple of weeks we’d have those folks showing back up on the farms,” Brown said.

Ken Nobis is the president of the Michigan Milk Producers Associations, which represents a $15 million industry in Michigan that needs labor.

His large family dairy in Clinton County has been in operation for decades. He encourages legal workers to explore farm jobs. He said there’s a myth about the kind of work you have to do.

“We’ve got a stereotype that’s hard to live down. It’s not as hard as it used to be. It’s not back bearing labor anymore. We have equipment to do the real hard work, but it still can be long hours,” Nobis said.

It also helps to have a higher education when working on a dairy farm. In Clinton County, workers can make a good living working at the Clinton Dairy Farm.

“Our employees on this farm are well paid, as well as if they went to work in a factory,” Nobis said.

As for Gamez, he said it’s a fact of Michigan life that undocumented workers will always be needed in Mid-Michigan and they should be embraced.

“They’re hard workers from sunup to sundown and they just want to make a living,” Gamez said.

The I-Team attempted to contact a dairy farm in Huron County that has been cited numerous times for harboring undocumented workers, but it declined to comment.

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