Sunday Focus

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 17, 2006

From the White House to the Black Belt

Immigration reform potentially affects local economy

By George L. Jones

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The Selma Times-Journal

TYLER – If there are any people who look at the recent legislature on immigration with just a passing glance, they probably don’t live in the Black Belt.

Whether a farmer, citizen or one of the several hundred foreign workers, the action on Capitol Hill in Washington affects each and every person that lives in an area so dependent on what comes from its earth.

To be fair, not all workers that emigrate to the United States are looking to work in agriculture or construction, and not all of them are Mexican. But in this particular part of the country, it’s a fairly safe bet that both conditions apply.

Arturo Hernandez, the head field worker for Minter & Son Farms, stood in the shadow of a building shielding himself from what already felt like a midday sun.

A squat man who looks at least 10 years younger than his half century on earth, Hernandez summed up a 20-minute conversation in a few simple words.

“We need to work, and they need the help,” said Hernandez. A native of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, he has been working in the United States since 1972.

It seems to be that simple on the surface, but politics and economics have meandered the line that directly connects the United States to its southernmost neighbor.

Among the several proposals of President George W. Bush were increased manpower along the U.S.-Mexico border, a secure wall along the border and a guest worker program.

Anyone asking will receive very few arguments against immigration reform to curb the flow of illegal aliens.

The biggest question is how – how to pass effective law and how much force to exert in enforcing it.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are currently in a debate over what can be reconciled among their respective versions of the bill.

Minter & Son owner Jay Minter admitted his interest in the debate peaked significantly once a serious debate over the issue began months ago.

His concern is that the final decision will be made as a triumphant medal of honor for politicians rather than a sensible solution for businesses directly involved.

“I’m pretty pleased with the version of the bill passed in the House,” Minter said. “You have several centrist Republicans and Democrats that want to come up with a solution that benefits the needs of the country. Then you have far right-wing Republicans that want to play political football with it. Some of them are acting out of their own selfish political agendas.”

Since the focus of the current immigration reform is on Mexico, there seems to be an imbalance in the way the final bill will affect the economy.

Mexican immigrants are typically hired to work as unskilled laborers in a select few areas of business.

“There are parts of agriculture where lots of hard labor is required,” Minter said. “Vegetable growing, meat processing. You’ve got those, you’ve got the construction industry, and in certain parts of the country, you’ve got restaurant and hotel support service. For U.S. business as a whole, the number of jobs (Mexicans) occupy, whether legal or illegal, has heavily concentrated in certain industries. It’s not even across the board.”

Legal work status has also been a hot button issue. Part of the impetus behind the reform is the aggravation of U.S. citizens over illegal aliens using healthcare resources and other government benefits.

To protect themselves against that, some business owners hire recruiters that specialize in providing legal workers by the bulk.

Minter, however, doesn’t take the chance of leaving it in someone else’s hands. Hernandez has been given the responsibility of finding seasonal help for the farm. And it’s not as easy as going around the corner.

“The legal workers are usually all the guys down around Mexico,” Hernandez said. “They come over and get their green card, and (immigration officials) check everybody. You’re going to get some with fake IDs if you get them locally. I can go to Hooper and get 30 or 40 guys, but they’re all going to have fake green cards. That’s why I go to the border.

“Usually someone with a good green card is already working.”

Hernandez also said he is in favor of aliens working on guest status and of the proposed wall. He is one of the many Mexican workers who has family living back home.

“Guys can work and go back to their families,” he said. “If you give them residence, they’ll forget about their families. With guest workers, you know for sure they’re going back … I think the wall is all right. It will stop people from getting killed who are trying to come over.”

Minter employs 10 to 13 Mexican workers once he gets heavy into harvesting season.

Even though he takes the proper precautions, there is still no foolproof way to prevent being burned by such a touchy situation.

“In my personal case, we check for all the proper ID,” Minter said. “We make sure everything appears to be in order. Beyond that, there’s really nothing we can do. Arturo just went back to the border to recruit some more guys, and I told him specifically to make sure he gets legal people.

“If I read a green card, and it appears to be legitimate and I refused employment, I could be open to a lawsuit.”