November 21, 2013

Cornell Students Aid Undocumented Farmworkers

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By KERRY CLOSE

When Lauren Lapointe ’14 decided to participate in the Cornell Farmworker Program’s internship, she thought it would be a good way to brush up on her Spanish and help farmworkers in upstate New York. She did not anticipate that the program would be able to take her outside the “insulating bubble of college” — letting her learn about a group of people that, she said, often seem “invisible.”

“I learned in detail the stories of these people’s lives and heard their hardships, such as the three to 11-day walk in the desert to cross the border of Mexico into America, the 12 to 20-hour work days filled with manual labor, the fear and isolation they live in and more,” she said.

The Farmworker Program emerged from student and faculty interest in addressing the challenges faced by farmworkers and their families, according to Mary Jo Dudley, its director. Today, the program involves both faculty and students who conduct research and extension efforts related to these issues, which often stem from many farmworkers’ status as undocumented immigrants.

“Whenever [undocumented workers] leave the farm, they run the risk of being stopped by state or local police or immigration officials,” Dudley said. “At times, that can result in law enforcement asking for documents, and if workers don’t have proper work authorization, those encounters can begin procedures for [deportation]. This can have a tremendous impact on one’s life. Consequently, there’s a widespread hesitancy among farmworkers to leave the farm unless necessary.”

An emergency planning workshop is one way in which the Farmworker Program tries to combat this challenge. The workshop gives background and guidance for farmworkers about the appropriate course of action to take in situations that might be unfamiliar to them, she said.

“Since many of the workers come from Mexico and Guatemala, they’re often not familiar with how to make preparations for emergencies, such as assigning power of attorney or guardianship,” Dudley said. “It’s a step-by-step workshop that provides farmworkers with information about the purpose and implications of these documents and guides them through the process of completing these forms.”

In 2006, Dudley developed the Farmworker Program’s summer internship, which facilitates Cornell student involvement in research and extension related to the issues that farmworkers face. Former interns have worked on projects dealing with issues ranging from farmworker housing to provision of health services through telehealth, or the use of technology for long-distance healthcare, she said.

“One of my goals as the director was to get students involved on an ongoing basis in addressing the needs of farmworkers and their families,” Dudley said.

During her internship, Lapointe focused on dairy farms, interviewing workers and analyzing their responses to compile a guidebook for employers to use when working with Hispanic farmworkers.

Through her research, she said, she became familiar with the obstacles farmworkers face in getting to and working in America.

The experience also opened Lapointe’s eyes to realities about the landscape of Ithaca and its surrounding area.

“Going into this program, I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “Not only did I not realize how many farms we have in upstate New York, I didn’t even realize that there is a population of Hispanic, unauthorized workers in Ithaca and nearby counties.”

Farmworker Program interns also worked on analyzing and improving workplace communication. As part of the project, they led discussions in which workers and employers met separately, and then together, to talk about the workplace issues that concern them.

“If you have a workplace in which workers and employers are able to communicate effectively … then that will make it a better workplace for everyone,” Dudley said.

Dudley said she finds the research conducted through the program rewarding on a personal level.

“Farmworkers are critical to the success of agriculture in New York State, but the workers and their challenges and successes are relatively invisible,” she said. “It’s important to be able to interact with farmworkers to learn about their reality and work collaboratively to address some of the concerns and issues that farmworkers face.”

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