Immigrants’ anxieties rise

Dan Grech Apr 28, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: There was a new recording of the national anthem released today. President Bush said he doesn’t care for it much, because the lyrics are sung in Spanish. All the same, you may hear it a lot between now and Monday. Immigrant groups have called for street protests that day. And an economic boycott.

But down in Florida this week, federal agents arrested hundreds of illegal immigrants. Workers are on edge. And at one plant nursery in Homestead, the anxiety is rising. From the Marketplace Americas Desk at WLRN, Dan Grech reports.

DAN GRECH: Blanca Nieto races a golf cart around DeLeon’s Plant Nursery. She’s shipping supervisor of the 28-acre farm for brightly colored bromeliads. In the last half hour alone, a third of the nursery’s 100 workers have gone home. They heard rumors that an immigration raid was coming. Earlier she saw a worker sprint toward a dumpster to hide. Now she watches helplessly as a white van filled with nursery workers zooms out of the parking lot.

BLANCA NIETO: Them people going out that way, is leaving, they’re gone. They’re going home.

Nieto whips her golf cart past the rows of plants to cajole her remaining workers to stay on the job.

NIETO: I’ve never experienced this before now. I mean they’re full of fear that they don’t care. All they care about is their families.

She stops to talk with Maria Cantoral. Maria is a 50-year-old immigrant from Guatemala. She’s worked in Florida nurseries for 11 years. She earns $6.75 an hour, just 35 cents above the state minimum wage. And she’s here legally.

MARIA CANTORAL [TRANSLATION]: I feel like crying. I got goosebumps when they said immigration officials were nearby. Even though I have my papers I feel nervous. We can’t do our work well. We all have headaches.

Three strangers arrive at the front desk of the nursery, sparking a new wave of anxiety. It turns out they’re local immigrant activists checking out the rumors of a raid. These same activists are organizing a work stoppage for Monday. They will hold an interfaith service and a march. It’s part of a nationwide protest some are calling “A Day Without Immigrants.”

Workers worried that nursery owner Don DeLeon would fire any workers who took Monday off. That’s the threat looming over millions of illegal workers who plan to join Monday’s protest. But DeLeon tells the activists that he worked out a compromise to handle the stoppage.

DON DELEON: They’re gonna come in and work part of the day on Saturday and knock out the orders for Monday. And then I’ve given them Monday off to do this. My brother and myself are going to load the trucks and I support their protest.

ACTIVISTS: Great. Thank you very much. That’s wonderful news. That’s wonderful news.

DELEON: I mean, it’s better for us that the people that are illegal have a chance to become citizens. It would kill the economy here if, all of a sudden, they just deported everybody. It would kill the economy.

The crisis here in Homestead, with its 1,200 nurseries, is mirrored nationwide at construction sites, restaurants, farms and hotels. All of them depend on undocumented workers. Back in the nursery, Blanca Nieto gets another phone call.

NIETO: My husband just called me and told me, “We’re stuck in the house.” My husband’s illegal. They were at the construction site where he was working at and so he just took off and went home.

GRECH: And that hurts your family, right?

NIETO: Oh yes, big time, financially, yes.

She says she’s struggling between her loyalty to her employer and a desire to support the walkout.

NIETO: I mean, I feel like I’m being pulled two ways and I can only go one. I’d like to let them go home and be with their families. But I can’t. I’ve got to get this work done. Orders have to be shipped today. Trucks are going to be here soon and we don’t have anything prepared. . . . Dime, Dime. The boxes have been packed! It’s been chaos today, you know that. I’m on my way.

Nieto speeds her cart to the pick-up area. Another truck is waiting to be loaded.

From Homestead, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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