Guest Opinions

Film shows farm workers living in fear so we can eat

Farm workers cutting asparagus
Farm workers cutting asparagus

Who picks the area’s fruits and vegetables? Who prunes the orchards and vineyards?

To see a documentary of people doing this work, come to the screening of “So Close to America” on March 20 in the Chiawana High School Auditorium at 7 p.m. The documentary will be presented by the Tri-Cities Immigrant Coalition in partnership with filmmaker Peter Carrs of Seattle.

After videotaping farm workers, conducting interviews in the Tri-Cities, and doing extensive research, Carrs produced this documentary to address concerns about immigration. He will be at the showing to answer audience questions.

The documentary begins with eerie cinematography as farm workers harvest asparagus in the dark. They wear headlamps and layers of clothing as they bend over to cut the base of the asparagus with a sharp tool. They place handfuls of prized spears into bins strapped across their shoulders and work until long after the sun has risen.

Virtually all these laborers are immigrants, and 50-80 percent of them are undocumented, according to Carrs’ documentary. Without them, farmers in this area would be unable to harvest their crops, and even with them, there’s a labor shortage.

Farmers won’t typically talk about immigration issues, and there isn’t a farmer in Carrs’ documentary. However, a local farmer was willing to share his story for this piece.

For decades, Michael Barnes, his father, and his father’s uncle grew cherries and apples in the Tri-Cities region. In days gone by, they hired 150 people annually to pick their fruit. However, over the years, the number of laborers showing up at harvest gradually dwindled.

Barnes explained, “A few years ago, I sold my farm because I couldn’t find enough workers.”

Like other farmers, Barnes knew he had hired people who were undocumented and was grateful for their hard work. Immigration laws didn’t provide him with another option.

Although H-2A visas are available for temporary agricultural workers and in unlimited numbers, acquiring them requires filing paperwork months ahead of harvest with several federal agencies and involves paying legal expenses and transportation, housing, and meal costs for workers.

Even with 300 acres of cherries and apples, hiring people with H-2A visas wasn’t cost effective for Barnes. Typically, only the biggest producers can afford workers with H-2A visas, and Barnes sold his land to one of them. While there are about 3 million workers on farms and in food factories in the U.S., in 2015 there were only about 140,000 H2-A visas issued, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Since they were instituted, our immigration laws haven’t provided enough low-skilled labor to meet our local demand, let alone the needs of our great country. People from south of our border have moved here over the years to support their families by answering help wanted ads in the U.S. Once here, these workers had no pathway to obtain papers; or they had a long wait, often longer than 20 years.

As a result, our local farmers still rely on undocumented individuals to work seasonal jobs that are dirty and physically demanding, and laborers live with the constant threat of deportation. It’s not surprising that there’s a farm worker shortage. How can we expect farm workers to live in fear so we can eat?

Besides immigrants, there are other Tri-Citians in Carrs’ documentary, like attorney Tom Roach and insurance agent Erica Ortiz, whose eloquence and explanations will leave you with a better understanding of complicated immigration issues.

Please come to the Chiawana Auditorium on March 20 at 7 p.m. to see what it’s like to be a farm worker here in the Tri-Cities.

Philippa Sonnichsen is steering committee secretary of the Tri-Cities Immigrant Coalition. TCIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the public with factual information to seek equitable solutions to immigration issues. To schedule a presentation for your group, to discuss any aspect of immigration with us, or for more information, please send an email at

If you go:

When: 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 20

Where: Chiawana High School Auditorium

Cost: Free