YAKIMA, Wash. – In August, when immigration advocates came together to witness, support and learn from the Yakima Diocese's migrant farmworker ministry, they shared some of the best practices they have learned from decades of experience working in ministry to farmworkers.
The Aug. 28-29 pastoral visit was organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee on Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers. Twenty-four participants came from the USCCB, the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network and related ministries.
The consensus of the group was that the essential element in this ministry is to build relationships with all stakeholders: workers and their families, growers, legislators and other service agencies.
Jesuit Father Thomas Florek, executive director of the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network, shared the story of Midwestern dairy farmers who cautiously began to hire Mexican-born workers as a last resort. One year, instead of an ordinary vacation, some of the farmers made a trip to the district where their workers lived and were moved to see how much of a difference the money sent home had made.
"Bienvenidos a su casa. (Welcome to your home)," a tiny Mexican grandmother greeted them. She traced the sign of the cross on each of their foreheads. "Que Dios los bendiga, como han bendecido a nuestros hijos. (May God bless you, as you have blessed our children.)"
Once back in Minnesota, one of the farmers said he knew he had a reputation as a bully, but this experience "humanized me, and my job." Now he is more ready to teach a poor performer, rather than immediately fire him.
Building relationships changes the nature of the conversation, and Father Florek is convinced that the key is to keep the conversation going, first among the various aid groups, and then grow it to include a dialogue with all players.
One aspect of dialogue is to use the language that speaks to a particular group, Father Florek said. Some lawmakers whose political base identifies as conservative, rather than talk about justice for immigrants, instead lead with food security for the nation, stressing the importance of providing Americans with U.S.-grown produce. That strategy helps their voter base realize their migrant farmworkers are an asset rather than a threat in that context.
So, how to get started?
First, get into the farmworker camps, which are usually on private land. Father Jesús Mariscal, currently the parochial vicar at St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima, told how he was repeatedly put off at one farm and could never speak to the owner. Finally, he rented a tuxedo and carried an empty briefcase to make himself look important, and that time, he got an appointment.
Second, talk to resident local parishioners. Encourage them to volunteer in this effort and provide background information on what farmworker life is like. Find out how they would like to help.
Third, talk to the families in the camps. Sandra Barrós, who is part of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Wenatchee (about two hours from the city of Yakima), said her team goes to every household, bringing supplies and inviting them personally to come to the activities.
Fourth, partner with other service groups. Rotary members can be counted on to provide household items and clothing. Lions Clubs will donate glasses. In Washington state, the federally funded Migrant Education Program provides not only instruction for children, but health programs and related support. The program's Gaby Fernández, who works in migrant education as a family and student engagement specialist, told the delegation how she creates educational activities, and gets others involved, such as local libraries and health clinics.
"There are 2,300 migrant students in our school district," she said. "Since they move from California, through Oregon, then Washington and go on to Idaho, it is difficult to complete schooling anywhere."
The youngest children stay in the camps while parents are at work. Teenagers either work in the fields or stay back to care for the others. Fernández said there is communication between states through this program to expedite the sharing of high school records to make it possible for students to graduate.
Lastly, keep all of these conversations going, both in person and through whatever forms of more distant communication are available.
Father Florek said what counts as a "best practice" may have to change as the situation changes. The trends he notices include:
– Fewer families, more single men. H-2A workers are replacing the unauthorized migrant workers who have historically worked the harvest. The federal H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs.
– Lower average age of farmworkers. While there are plenty of gray hairs to be seen in the orchards among the unauthorized migrant workers, H-2A workers are generally younger and some contractors will not hire those over a certain age. Father Florek believes the largest age cohort among farmworkers is from 18-30.
– Larger farms with absentee owners. Owners set policy without any local knowledge and are likely to see workers as a commodity.
– Changes in state law. The changes vary throughout the country, but in all cases, it is important to be aware of legislative action.
– Expanded job opportunities. While some other industries, like construction, have always had a migrant component, Father Florek sees this trend intensifying; a broader job market including meat and vegetable processing, nonunion manufacturing, foundries and fulfillment centers.
– Increase in the politicization of migrants as a hot-button issue.
– Climate change.
As the reality on the ground changes, the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network adjusts the training it offers in support of parish ministries.
"The program is called El Sembrador," said Father Florek. "It prepares leadership for a sustainable farmworker ministry that welcomes, protects, promotes, and integrates migrant farmworkers into the parish."
He said the initiative is based on time spent in 20 dioceses around the country.
Ann Hess writes from the Yakima Valley in Washington.