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.
"If we don't have papers, we can't [grow our own trees]," an undocumented worker named Csar told me in Spanish. "It's difficult."
In Ashe County, which leads North Carolina with approximately 2,500 workers harvesting a million trees a year, I've been able to identify exactly four other Latinos cultivating their own Fraser firs: Buca's business partner, Gernimo, has 20,000; Gernimo's wife's cousins Jorge and Bonificio have 40,000 between them; and their friend Silvestre leads the way with 55,000, potentially worth more than $1 million when he cuts them in a few years. All of them arrived in the United States illegally in the late 1980s; all became permanent residents under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which provided amnesty for undocumented workers; and all had come by 1991 to North Carolina, where they learned how to care for Christmas trees. By 1998, all were U.S. citizens. But not Buca. By the time he and Amanda came to the United States in 1993, the amnesty provision had expired.
Bienvenidos a Norte Carolina
With snow on the ground in March 1994, Buca and Amanda arrived in North Carolina from a $1-an-hour job in a Florida orange grove. Their new employer put them up in a two-bedroom cabin with five other guys. They had no winter clothes. One of their roommates, Enrique, asked the boss's truck driver, Lionl, to take them to the local swap shop for some sweaters, coats, and boots. The labor contractor who brought them here from Florida was taking $2 an hour out of Buca's $5.50 wage, so after a year another Mexican, Ramiro, helped him get a new job with no middleman, and later sold them their first car.
What's striking, amid the national media's fascination with cultural conflict–zoning battles over Ecuadorian volleyball, Hispanic drunk drivers on the rampage, immigration raids, the Minutemen at the border–is how the local Anglo community has embraced these immigrants. The Hispanic Baptist mission exists because the local association of more than 250 Southern Baptist churches pooled their resources to hire a Mexican pastor; one tree grower donated an old KFC to serve as a sanctuary, and another paid for 350 Spanish Bibles. In Watauga County, to the south, an Episcopal church founded the advocacy group High Country Amigos, which later opened a second branch in Ashe County and serves as a clearinghouse for translation and other immigrant services. In Alleghany County, to the east, a Colombian Baptist pastor and a Catholic doctor opened a low-cost health clinic for uninsured patients, with a team of volunteer interpreters. Grant-funded aid workers also visit the farms to provide medical care and educational supplements to migrant laborers and their families. The Los Arcoiris Mexican Restaurant in Jefferson is usually packed with a mostly Anglo clientele.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, the North Carolina Department of Labor cited a dozen large growers for nearly 100 migrant housing violations. But conditions have improved since then. A few growers and their families are learning Spanish and have traveled to Mexico to understand where their men come from. There are still growers and landlords who will take advantage of the workers' desperate circumstances, but there are also plenty of individuals eager to share their burdens, as Buca and Amanda happily attest.
Marilyn Riehle, a lay missionary with Ashe County's only Catholic church, helped them find their own rental trailer after Amanda, pregnant, fell through the migrant cabin's bathroom floor while washing all the men's laundry in the bathtub. A woman named Robin, among the few Anglos still working the pines, drove her to the county health department for maternity care. Ramiro's boss, whom I won't name because Buca still works for him 10 years later, co-signed on a loan to help the couple buy their own trailer on an acre of land. He also loaned them about 2,000 Fraser fir seedlings and lets them borrow money to get through the winters, when there's little work to do. The boss's father helped Amanda get a job in a local woodshop, where she learned to speak English (which she does well enough to serve as an on-call interpreter for local health care providers and law enforcement). Richard, a next-door neighbor, offered Buca some land on which to plant his seedlings and later gave him a lawn tractor to start a weekend mowing business.
"It just amazes me, how well they've done," says Riehle. "I wish there was some way they could get their papers."
Ashe County Sheriff Jim Hartley also sympathizes with the illegal workers who gravitate to Ashe County, and he doesn't mince words. "I'd probably try to come across that river too," he tells me. "I'd come across, and I'd probably come across the next time too….Personally, I always said, my family or myself's not going to go hungry as long as they put glass in front of supermarkets. When you get so hungry, you do whatever you need to do."
This entire region depends on foreign workers to energize its leading agricultural industry. Growers say there just aren't enough local workers to fill a labor demand that triples during the six-week period from late October to mid-December. In a North Carolina State University survey, farmers told agricultural agent Jim Hamilton they'd have to cut back or go out of business without Mexican labor, and veteran workers like Buca ensure a steady supply, recruiting family and friends and helping them adjust to life in the North Carolina mountains. "If it wasn't for these guys, we wouldn't even be in business," says Buca's boss's father, who started the family farm in 1959.
"We'd shut down. We couldn't do it anymore," says Mark Johnson, foreman at New River Tree Company, a huge operation that has one of the largest Anglo work forces in the area but still relies heavily on immigrant labor. "We used to work guys from Ashe County. It's not a matter of how much you pay them. Nobody wants to do the work. The work's hard. The Mexicans come from [where] everything they do's hard."
Johnson's farm recruits workers through the North Carolina Growers Association, the largest source of legal immigrant labor in the United States, bringing about 10,000 men each year into North Carolina to cultivate everything from sweet potatoes to tobacco. But these H-2A workers fill only about one in 10 jobs on Christmas tree farms. Most growers find undocumented workers through their colleagues, independent labor contractors, or their own veteran workers who bring friends and family members back from Mexico. Jackie Copeland, a consultant with the North Carolina Employment Security Commission in Ashe County, says Christmas tree growers rarely ask for legal workers through her office, but they're willing to hire local people if they apply.
"We don't have a lot of people that apply to those orders," she says. "You have to be willing to work from dawn to dusk."
During the Christmas tree harvest, the men–and a few women–work 10- to 16-hour shifts. They each carry dozens, sometimes hundreds of trees a day, depending on the size. A man can haul two of the smaller six-foot trees at once, but those exceeding nine feet often require two to five workers to navigate them through the labyrinths of tender trees awaiting future harvests. Even when they team up, the men sometimes need a few minutes to recover after moving each of these grandes, as they call them. Imagine a crew of 20 men moving all the furniture and boxes from a 30-home subdivision in a single day, carrying them and loading them onto trucks parked not in front of each house but every block or two. Then imagine this neighborhood is on the side of a mountain.
The hardest work comes at the end of the day, when the workers are weariest. As a bailing crew operates a machine that ties back the branches, forming the trees into tight cylinders, the workers heave them onto flatbed trailers. The trees pile higher and higher, until some workers are standing on top of a 10- to 12-foot pile and tugging on the tops of the trees while others are pushing from below. The trailers haul the trees to storage and loading areas, where the workers reverse the process, leaning the trees against each other inside rope corrals. There, the trees wait for commercial truckers to pick them up.
Once the semis come to collect the trees, the workers use similar teamwork, as one set of men waits inside a trailer while another group sends the trees upward along a mechanized conveyor belt. They work without stopping, sometimes stumbling under the weight of the grandes, until hundreds of trees fill each truck. Crews of about 10 workers load up to a dozen trucks in one day, then wake up the next morning with sore arms, shoulders, backs, and legs, only to do it all over again, every day for five to six weeks. Pay ranges from $6 to $8 an hour for the typical worker.
"Americans don't do this work," says Buca's longtime friend and co-worker Julin, in Spanish. "It's for the Mexican burros."
Ashe County native Kevin Dishman, 22, worked the 2002 Christmas tree harvest. "Ain't never bothered with it again," he said as he waited to file an unemployment claim last January. He'd injured his wrist at a poultry processing plant in nearby Wilkesboro, a job with a base pay of $9.25 an hour plus bonuses. There he had to catch several six-pound live chickens in each hand and carry them upside down by their legs, two between his thumb and forefinger and one between each of the other fingers. He'd do this over and over again, all day.
"It's rough, but it still ain't as bad as the trees," he said. "Pine tree work is harder than catching chickens because of all the lifting that you've got to do."
With so few local people willing to harvest Christmas trees, growers have to rely on migrants who come from tobacco fields in the Carolinas or orange groves in Florida. Out of more than 3,000 Hispanics who live in Ashe County at some point during the Christmas tree growing season, fewer than 1,000 belong to intact families who stay here year-round. About two-thirds of North Carolina's Christmas tree workers are migrant men who come alone for late summer shearing or the fall harvest, leaving wives and children, mothers and fathers back in Mexico to wait for their pay-phone calls and wire transfers. The men live barracks-style, sleeping two or three to a bedroom, with a few more in the living room of a dormitory, trailer, apartment, or old farmhouse. These workers are vital to one of the region's leading industries, yet the current immigration system, the subject of a protracted debate in Washington, keeps their families apart. The H-2A program does not allow workers to bring their families, and as Amanda's story shows, crossing illegally with women and children is often too dangerous. So the men come alone.
Just when many of the migrants are reuniting with their wives and children for the winter break back in Mexico, Buca is leaving his. Last year, Buca's employer offered to falsify a guest-worker contract so Amanda could go with him, but she was afraid something would go wrong, leaving her stuck in Mexico while her daughters live the only life they know in the United States. "I won't do it," she says. "She's afraid she's never going to see [the girls] again," says Buca.
In 2003 Amanda's younger brother Jorge, 20, came to work on the commercial farm with Buca, but the girls have never met their 13 other aunts and uncles and numerous cousins who still live in Mexico. Part of Amanda's wages go to pay medical bills for her elderly father, stricken with malignant lymphoma. She hasn't seen him since leaving Las Choapas, Veracruz, on June 29, 1993. I visited the family the day after Buca came home in February 2005. As he told us of the mangos and oranges dangling from trees in his parents' backyard, and of his nieces and nephews who sleep on the floor because their parents can't afford furniture, I could see the wheels spinning inside Darby's head. "I've never seen my grandparents," she said simply. Their retired neighbors, Miss Barbara and Mr. H, fill the role of Grandma and Grandpa.
Before the spring of 1998, Buca brought his sister Laura and her husband, Lucio, across the border to work on the farm in North Carolina. After two nights of walking to rendezvous with a human smuggler beyond an immigration checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas, they encountered a group of 80 male migrants with their own coyote. Lucio was afraid someone among the men might try to rape or kidnap his wife, as sometimes happens in the desperate borderlands. They forfeited their food and water to avoid a conflict. Two years later, the boss sent the men back to Mexico to apply for H-2A work visas. Now Lucio and Buca travel alone to Mexico to renew their H-2A contracts almost every winter, leaving their families behind just as most Christmas tree workers return to theirs in Mexico. The H-2A program is intended for seasonal jobs that last no more than 10 months, aligning perfectly with the Christmas tree growing season but forcing even assimilated immigrants like Buca to return to their native countries from mid-December to mid-February.
"It's too long to stay over there," Buca told me last summer, as he dreaded another winter away from his family. In December 2004, after his crew loaded the last Christmas tree that would bring some American family together, Buca's split apart. His boss has tried three times to obtain green cards for him and Lucio, to no avail.
"I'd love to find a good attorney," says the boss, "but it seems like everyone we've contacted, they take $200 or $300, and you never hear from them again."
Buca is qualified for a green card, but he's competing against millions of other candidates. Experts estimate the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the United States at somewhere between 5 million and 6 million, with nearly half a million crossing our southern border annually during the last five years. Because the law caps annual immigration from any one nation at 7 percent of the total, these millions are competing for fewer than 26,000 permanent resident green cards a year for Mexicans. The only additions to this quota are for those with U.S.-citizen spouses, parents, or children able to sponsor them. The system provides only 140,000 spots for employment-based green card applicants, and only 40,000 of those are for aspiring immigrants with education at the baccalaureate level or below. Just 10,000 permanent resident visas a year cover the unskilled jobs that most Mexican immigrants fill.
Buca's current application emphasizes his training in handling pesticides and operating farm equipment. He might apply for a commercial driver's license to improve his chances of landing one of the skilled labor spots. But the odds are still extremely low. As of October, the Department of Homeland Security was still processing employment-based green card applications filed by Mexicans in 2000 and earlier. North Carolina alone has an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants. "It's gotten crazy for people like Buca who are every bit as American as people who were born here," says his neighbor Richard.
Amanda has almost no shot at a green card. It will be another 10 years before Darby, a U.S.-born citizen, turns 21 and can sponsor her parents' application. Although she and her sister have known no other home, the Department of Homeland Security could deport their mother at any time. Back in Veracruz, Amanda dreamed of being a teacher. She'd love to pursue her GED and go to college. She trusts local officials, but she's afraid of attracting outside attention by filing an application.
During the 2004 Christmas season, Buca and Amanda's church lost its pastor after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied his green card application for the third time and the county Baptist association decided it could no longer support an illegal immigrant. The Sanchez family, Amanda's longtime friends, chose to send their children back to Mexico for college because, even though they grew up in local schools, their undocumented status precludes in-state tuition benefits. Fortunately for the Christmas tree workers and a local economy that relies on their labor, immigration agents don't venture to these parts unless they can round up undocumented felons or groups of 25 or more illegal aliens, according to Sheriff Hartley. That rarely happens.
It's one of the main reasons Hispanics say they've settled here and probably one reason why the Hispanic population in the rural South is growing at a much higher rate than in more obvious places such as California.
The High Country Hispanic community is waiting for Congress to consider the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act, nicknamed AgJobs, which for three years in a row has died before any real debate. Endorsed by the National Christmas Tree Association, the National Council of La Raza, and various labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, the AgJobs bill aims to make the H-2A program more attractive to growers and give current farm workers and their families a chance at permanent residence. As long as he works at least 360 days in agriculture over six years following the bill's passage, Buca would be guaranteed a green card. In April 2005 a Senate majority supported AgJobs, but the bill barely missed the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
A broader piece of immigration reform legislation, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Bill of 2005, co-sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would expand green card quotas to eliminate the backlogs that stymie longtime undocumented workers. Although this bill also has widespread support, it remains to be seen whether Republicans can iron out sharp disagreements within their party. Some favor stricter enforcement of existing laws and oppose creating new paths to naturalization.
Meanwhile, the families of U.S. farm workers suffer the pain of separation. I visited Amanda and her girls a few days after returning from a trip to Florida to see my own parents, siblings, and in-laws during Christmas of 2004. Buca's return was still a month away. As I sat in her kitchen, at the end of a two-day visit to the mountains, three hours from my own wife and daughters, 4-year-old Daisy tugged on my arm and asked if I missed them.
"Yes," I said. "Very much."
"I miss my daddy," she said.