A farmer from Arrowsmith who raises 74,000 hogs a year says he couldn’t do it without immigrant labor.
Patrick Bane employs nine Hispanic workers, most of whom have worked for him for 10-15 years. He credits those employees for helping him land the National Pork Board's 2018 Pig Farmer of the Year award.
“I couldn’t do it without a dedicated workforce. I am indebted to them,” he told an audience Wednesday night at a League of Women Voters of McLean County panel discussion about immigration and its impact on McLean County.
When he switched from grain to livestock farming, Bane lost workers and it became, as he put it, “a revolving door.” He struggled to find anyone willing to do the grueling 24/7 work that includes cleaning, feeding, vaccinating, inseminating and taking care of piglets in a humane way. He tried to find reliable employees but no one was interested.
“When people can go to McDonald’s and make more money in an air-conditioned building and doing hard labor on a pig farm, it kind of makes it challenging,” he said.
Then a livestock farmer connected him with an Hispanic family in Monmouth which had been working at a meat-packing company and was willing to move in exchange for housing, benefits, and other support Bane was willing to provide.
He praised their work ethic and loyalty. To critics Bane responds: “Americans don’t want to do these jobs, and when we have these industries, like agriculture, it creates jobs downstream that Americans do want to do,” referring to packaging, processing and trucking.
Bane said his employees have presented documentation of citizenship and he deducts payroll and Social Security taxes. The National Pork Producers Association and other farm groups are pushing legislation that would initially let agricultural employers hire up to 410,000 foreign workers for on-farm jobs and 40,000 for meatpacking plants.
It would also convert a visa program for seasonal migrant workers into one allowing non-seasonal ag workers to remain in the United States for up to three years while deferring a portion of their pay as an incentive for them to return to their home country. Workers would need to return for one month for every year in the United States.
Blocking the Path to Citizenship
Charlotte Alvarez, executive director and staff attorney for the Immigration Project, said her organization covers 86 counties in Illinois and has 650 clients a year who need help claiming asylum, fighting deportation, or becoming a citizen or permanent resident.
“Our job is to help low-income populations figure out how to get through our immigration system and what legal pathways there are to do that,” she said.
In Illinois, 13% of residents are foreign born. It's 6% in McLean County, making the county 14th in the state for foreign-born immigrants with varying degrees of status.
Those immigrants are driving the state’s economy, according to Alvarez, who cited a study showing in 2014 they earned $55 billion and contributed $15 billion in taxes.
In Bloomington last year, Alvarez said her agency consulted with people from 28 different countries from all over the globe, from a Congolese woman who is wondering how to get through the cold of winter to a family from Mexico living in a mixed-status house with some residents having been here for 40 years.
The Immigration Project sees low-income clients on a path to citizenship now getting hung up as federal agencies re-interpret the law with additional restrictions.
“We see consistent policies that are reinterpreting and rewriting the rules to restrict immigration flows and it’s 100 little tiny ways," Alvarez said.
But there are also new, bigger barriers coming out in the form of additional rules requiring immigrants who want to come to the country. Alvarez said they now have to prove they can afford health insurance, and that does not include the subsidies that go along with the Affordable Care Act.
“Now they have an additional barrier to prove that they can afford to pay and buy into private health insurance in one of the most expensive, medical-fueled economies in the world.”
The Migration Policy Institute estimates the new rule could prevent could prohibit the entry of roughly 375,000 immigrants annually—mainly family-based immigrants who make up the majority of those getting green cards from abroad. Alvarez said many Immigration Project clients are struggling with a current rule to find a sponsor when they can’t meet the requirement to be at or above the federal government’s poverty definition.
A new 200-page rule adds additional requirements, including proving the potential to be an income earner which Alvarez says will wipe out the immigration prospects for basically anyone over 65 and small children.
“Women who are taking care of children and the disabled who are physically or mentally unable to work are going to get dinged,” she suggested.
The so-called public charge law is being challenged in the courts with an injunction in place for now. But Alvarez said if it is upheld, it will be a significant setback to a huge section of the population who are low-income, including women with children.
“We need a system that links up with reality. We need laws that recognize the need for labor," Alvarez said.
Impact on Schools
There are 700 immigrant children, many in junior high and high school in Unit 5, who are enrolled in English As A Second Language (ESL) programs.
Program Manager Leslie Romagoli said the program has grown exponentially in recent years, with the biggest group represented by the 11-17 age category who came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.
Romagoli said Unit 5 and other school districts are bound by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that essentially declared education is a right for all, so administrators don’t ask about whether students are documented or undocumented.
Marianela Diaz is from Venezuela and came to Bloomington-Normal in 2015 with her husband and two boys who had just finished the first and third grade when they left their home country. Now, 11 and 13 years old, she says they worry every day that their dreams to go to Normal Community High School and possibly Illinois State University will be crushed. They check the mail every day, hoping to get word that their claim for political asylum will be considered.
“The wait is long for us,” she shared.
To assimilate, Diaz volunteered at her children’s school. After a year, she was hired by Unit 5 as a bilingual parent liaison helping other Hispanic families enroll their children and stay involved in their child’s education. The bilingual program also helps children keep their heritage and their native language while they continue to master English. It includes cultural components so students appreciate the heritage of their home country.
Demecio Rafael Rodas left Guatemala six years ago and he has not had an easy time. After struggling in Los Angeles, he moved to Central Illinois at the urging of his brothers who had arrived earlier. But Rodas said they didn’t learn to navigate the culture and couldn’t offer much support.
Rodas continues to work on learning English but with his son, they’ve worked their way from restaurant and cleaning jobs to owning their own carpet installation business. His son, Jose Padilla, was 17 and reluctant to leave his friends and high school behind. But he speaks English well in part, because in Venezuela, he played video games online with U.S. teens.
“I had to learn the language to keep from getting killed,” he joked.
Padilla also served as an interpreter in McLean County court and at a relatively young age, he said it felt great to be called a professional. It also encouraged him to continue his education and he’s now in a bridge-to-college program offered by his church.
As for how the community can help immigrants, Padilla said something as simple as speaking more slowly can help. Diaz encouraged those in the crowd to learn a second language to help expand your cultural understanding, while Romagnoli pointed out immigrants often feel uncertain, isolated, even ignored. She suggested trying to engage with even a smile.
“Take on discomfort.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the year and title of Pat Bane's award. He was America's Pig Farmer of the Year in 2018.
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