America's Criminal Immigration Policy

How U.S. law punishes hard work.

In the wee hours of a Tuesday morning in December 2004, Buca's daughters, 10-year-old Darby and 4-year-old Daisy, reached up from their bed, hugged their daddy, and went back to sleep. Outside their back window, the sun was still waiting to cross the distant cattle pastures that rise up from the far bank of the New River valley, far below their mountaintop home in Ashe County, North Carolina. Buca (whose surname I am omitting to protect his family's identity) was among thousands of Mexican men flowing south from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the weeks before Christmas. The girls would not see him again until February.

Like a nativity set missing a figurine, this scene recurs almost every year. Five thousand of their very own Christmas trees grow around their home, right there next to the girls' trampoline and swing set, yet the Mexican border, 1,500 miles away, manages to divide the family at Christmas time. To comply with federal law, Buca must return to his native Veracruz, in southern Mexico, and renew his H-2A temporary guest worker visa or risk losing it and drawing up to $10,000 in fines for his employer. Except for one year, when he decided he couldn't afford it, Buca has made this trip every winter since December 2000. His wife, Amanda, remains in the North Carolina mountains illegally with their daughters, refusing to endure another dangerous border crossing on the return trip north.

At 35, Buca is a crew leader on a large commercial Christmas tree farm, helping his employers harvest more than 30,000 Fraser firs a year from an inventory of about half a million spread across three counties in North Carolina and southwest Virginia. The state of North Carolina exports about 5 million Fraser firs every year, or one out of every five Christmas trees sold in the United States. Buca's family fragmentation is common: Permanent resident green cards, even for parents of American citizens such as Darby and Daisy, are scarce (just over 700,000 were handed out in fiscal year 2003), and H-2A agricultural visas are for individual farm workers, not their families.

Buca is technically a "nonimmigrant worker" because his visa allows him to stay only as long as the Christmas tree growing season lasts, February through December. Amanda works as a nanny for the daughter and son-in-law of a local Baptist leader she met at church. She is ineligible for her husband's H-2A temporary agricultural visa. More than half of all U.S. farm workers have no legal working status at all. Most are men who cross the border with other men, looking for work to provide for their families. They raise your turkey in Minnesota, dig your potatoes in Idaho, pick your corn in Illinois, and scoop your cranberries from a Massachusetts bog. A good portion of their paychecks gets wired back to Guanajuato or Chiapas, so mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, and children can buy some meat, or books for school.

The agricultural, construction, and service industries have come to depend on these immigrants, yet the avenues for citizenship and full membership in American society are so narrow as to be closed completely for most foreign workers. More than 10 million illegals contribute the labor without which American society as we know it would stall, but unless the current immigration limits expand, our government will not recognize them as Americans. Legislators of both parties have proposed a plan to put illegal immigrants on a road to citizenship. Unless Congress approves it, men will continue to leave their families behind and risk their lives to improve them.

Some, like Buca, will manage to bring their families with them. They'll become our friends, neighbors, and community volunteers. But they won't be Americans.

I met Amanda and Buca in November 2004 at a Hispanic Baptist mission in rural Ashe County, population 25,000, which has seen its Hispanic population swell to at least 3,000 during recent fall harvests, just 20 years removed from when the area was almost exclusively white. Amanda greeted me, the only gringo in the pews, in English. It was in my language that we got to know each other, over tamales at a Latino center fundraiser, turkey and refried beans at a church-sponsored Thanksgiving dinner for migrant Christmas tree workers, and, eventually, over dozens of meals around Buca and Amanda's kitchen table.

Barbie, Christmas Trees, and Sweet Tea

Buca took me to work with him through the spring and summer. We dug up evergreens for landscapers and garden centers, planted Fraser firs for Christmas 2012, spread fertilizer and pesticides, and trimmed this year's crop into beautiful cones. After more than a decade on the job, Buca has climbed the young man's mountain of proving himself. He's earned the physically easier jobs: driving the tractors and counting the trees as the other guys carry them. If he wants to go home at 5 or 6 o'clock, he goes home, even if his friends are working late. He's got plenty of work to do at home: his own Christmas trees to tend, neighbors' lawns to mow, household maintenance. He lives for his girls. He teases them when they ask if he loves them. He teaches them Bible stories. He canoes with them on the river and goes to their dance and piano recitals.

A liberated yet traditional woman, Amanda learned to drive a car and joined the workforce after immigrating to the United States. She still makes Buca's coffee and packs his lunch every morning, and she's convinced he'd starve if she didn't have his dinner waiting when he got home from work. (In fact, some of his dormitory-dwelling co-workers do skip dinner after 12 hours at work, because they're too tired to cook.) Amanda has occasionally complained to me, only half joking, that she's not as thin as she used to be. But when she smiles with her big brown eyes and high cheek bones, when she laughs at life itself, she makes you feel like you're the most important person in the world.

This sometimes sends the wrong message to men, even Buca's friends. It's not a message a woman wants to send on the migrant trail of lonely men--or in the patriarchal provinces of rural Mexico, where women are often viewed as little more than property. When she and Buca first crossed the border in 1993, an unwelcome suitor tried to kidnap her; she fell from a moving freight train and walked all day with a broken collarbone; a Texas smuggler tried to force her into prostitution; a Florida labor contractor did the same; and the contractor's brother tried to send Buca to North Carolina without her, so he could have her for himself. At the border, Amanda would have to stop being herself, a self-directed American woman.

When I would crash on their couch after our late-night talks three hours from my own home, we'd wake to the sound of the local country music station, with Tim McGraw singing of life on the road, forgotten friends, and the same sort of parental meddling that drove Buca and Amanda out of Veracruz 12 years ago. Buca was 22 when he lost his job at the government-owned Mexican oil company Pemex during a round of layoffs that cut the work force in half. His parents thought Amanda dressed immodestly, and her parents thought he drank too much. With no job prospects in his hometown of Las Choapas, Buca decided to head north to the border, where the foreign-owned maquiladora factories had provided jobs to Mexicans since the 1960s.

He and Amanda had originally intended to stay in Matamoros, opposite Brownsville, Texas, a 27-hour bus ride from home. But Buca couldn't find a job. Amanda went to work at a fast food restaurant, and the pair lived on take-out fried chicken for a few weeks. Then the restaurant owner started hitting on Amanda, still a teenager. He tried to kidnap her as she walked home one night, and she never went back to work. They survived a few days on cash Buca received by donating blood across the border at a Brownsville health clinic. Then they finally headed north for good.

Today they drink Southern sweet tea. (They call it té dulce.) The girls barely speak Spanish, thanks to Amanda's deliberate decision to get an Anglo babysitter. Darby and Daisy, both American citizens, are into pizza, Barbie, and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Darby's cardboard model of the U.S. Capitol was on display for a few weeks at the public library in West Jefferson.

Their gleaming gray trailer, which Buca paints every year, perches on a plateau of manicured grass, surrounded on three sides by the meandering New River 300 feet below. The view from their driveway looks down the river valley some 30 miles into Virginia. Looking left from their front porch, you can see Mount Jefferson, a hazy green backdrop to the verdant cattle pastures and neat rows of Fraser firs dotting hillsides in the foreground. They own this home and a neighborhood lawn-mowing business. A few feet from the back deck, their land drops sharply toward the river. On this mountain slope, Buca and Amanda are growing 3,000 of their own Christmas trees, ready to harvest this year or next. They have 5,000 younger trees on land owned by friends, neighbors, and lawn-mowing clients. They're among an exclusive group of Hispanic Christmas tree workers who are growing their own crop. Eighty percent of North Carolina's Christmas tree workers are Hispanic immigrants, but entrepreneurship is just a dream to most.

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