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Myths abound about foreign farm workers in region

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A trio of seasonal farm workers from Central America work at sunrise in a farm field in Bertie County. The workers say they don't receive any government assistance and send the bulk of their paychecks back home to support their families.

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By Miles Layton
Chowan Herald

Monday, October 8, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series on foreign farm workers who work in the region.

COLERAIN — There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the more than 150,000 foreign farm workers who toil the tobacco fields and other crops in North Carolina each year. But none seem as persistent as the false claims that they collect taxpayer-funded benefits like food stamps and health care or that they vote in elections.

Alphonso Aguilar, a migrant farm worker in the U.S. on a work visa, says neither he nor the four other men with whom he lives in a small house in Bertie County receive any benefits from the state of North Carolina or the U.S. government. Because they are not U.S. citizens, the migrant farm workers are not eligible for food stamps or any associated subsidies.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a person must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible, lawfully-present non-citizen to qualify for SNAP benefits. Non-citizens who are eligible based on their immigration status must also satisfy other SNAP eligibility requirements such as income and resource limits to receive SNAP benefits. Based on federal guidelines, farm laborers like Aguilar do not qualify for food stamps.

Aguilar and Father Carlos Arce, a Catholic priest in Edenton who ministers to foreign farm workers, say they contrary to popular belief, farm laborers are not in the U.S. sponging off the system; they’re here, they said, to earn money that they can send home to their families.

Aguilar, who’s from the Mexican state of Durango, said some foreign farm workers pay state and federal taxes, though not all of them do. Those who pay taxes may receive a tax refund — funds held from withholding — after they file taxes — the same as any U.S. citizen. Unlike U.S. citizens, Aguilar doesn't have to pay Social Security taxes, so for the most part he gets to keep what he earns to send home to his family.

Asked if he has any retirement plan, Aguilar, 54, says he doesn’t. He doesn’t pay into any government-run retirement system in Mexico. His retirement “plan” — if that’s what you’d call it — is to keep working until he can work no more. Given that farm laborers work 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, Aguilar’s not sure how long he can keep up that pace.

Aguilar said a farm worker who doesn't work, doesn't get paid. He’s angry that his 23-year-old son, Ivan, was sent home by their employer after he got sick. Aguilar said Ivan needed surgery and in fact worked two hours the day he was supposed to have surgery. As for Ivan's medical bills, Aguilar said he and Ivan have no idea how they are going to pay them because they have no health insurance.

For routine medical care, a nonprofit health clinic in Ahoskie checks on the workers from time to time, Aguilar said.

Designated a migrant health center in 2005, the Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center provides a range of primary medical care, dental and behavioral health services to area residents considered medically under-served.

Guy Simmons, chairman of the Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center, said the center’s migrant seasonal farm worker team has provided initial health assessments on more than 500 seasonal agricultural workers so far this year. In July alone the team visited 22 different camps in the five counties it serves: Bertie, Hertford, Gates, Northampton and Washington counties.

“We are dedicated to all the patients we can reach,”Simmons said. “It takes a long time to build trust with these communities. There are a lot of barriers such culture and language. When our team goes out on site to treat people, a lot of the barriers have to be overcome.”

Simmons said an initial health assessment includes checking blood pressure and blood sugar levels as well as treating common ailments associated with farm work: rashes, eye irritations, sore muscles and indigestion as well diagnosing diseases and conditions like hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Simmons said while physician assistants and nurses who visit migrant worker camps can treat most ailments, if there is something more serious, they refer the patient to a hospital. He said depending on the severity of the condition, most workers’ health problems are treated at their work site.

Simmons said in addition to primary care, farmer workers are also provided information about other services offered by food banks, churches and school districts.

The Edenton Chowan Food Pantry, whose funding comes from non-government sources, plays a key role in assisting migrant farm families. The food pantry in fact played a critical role in helping farm workers in Bertie County who, for reasons unknown to them, once weren’t paid on time.

In desperation, the families turned to St. Anne Catholic Church, where Arce is the pastor. Arce coordinated a relief effort that helped the families get the food they needed from the pantry.

Roger Coleman, food pantry director, said participating in the relief effort for the migrant workers is what his agency does. The food pantry assists hundreds of people each year to survive tough times, he said.

“The response represented Edenton and Chowan County at its best — it was timely, significant and very personal. The food pantry was honored to be a part of this effort,” Coleman said.

One of the more persistent — and possibly pernicious — myths about migrant farm workers is that they vote illegally in U.S. elections. President Donald Trump in fact blames his loss of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 president election on 3 million illegal votes. Trump has made the claim, which is not supported by voting data, as part of his overall strategy to reduce all forms of immigration — illegal and legal — to the U.S.

Aguilar said neither he nor his fellow farm workers are registered to vote or politically active in any way. Their thoughts are focused on their work and their families back home.

A number of studies show that voter fraud, much less illegal voting by foreign nationals, is rare. According to report from the North Carolina Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, 41 non-citizens with legal status in the U.S. — those with a green card or some other legal documentation allowing them to be in the country — cast ballots in North Carolina in the 2016 election. That’s out of a total of 4.8 million ballots cast.

The audit pairing state and federal databases identified an additional 34 voters who provided documents showing they are U.S citizens. Investigators continue to review 61 additional records. The report didn't include any evidence of coordinated fraud, and many of the voters claimed to be confused about their eligibility.

A federal grand jury recently indicted 19 non-U.S. citizens with voting illegally in the 2016 election. The 19 are from 14 different countries. Only five are from two countries — Mexico and El Salvador — whose nationals make up more than 34 percent of the total number of foreign farm workers in the U.S.

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