In the predawn hours of July 26, federal immigration officials burst into a migrant labor camp on Maryland's Eastern Store and arrested 10 illegal aliens as they were aloading onto trucks to go into the fields.
The next morning, immigration agents came back to the Irving Handy labor camp near Hurlock, and before nightfall, 28 more undocumented workers were on their way to Baltimore and, ultimately, deportation.
It was one of a series of raids - 12 more aliens were arrested in three separate incidents yesterday - throughout several southern Maryland farming communities. The raids have netted 108 illegal migrant farmers since July 12.
Over 6,000 migrant farm workers, moving slowly north from Texas. Florida and North Carolina, spread over the Eastern Shore every year to pick produce for commercial canning operations. The U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization estimates that over 1,500 of those are illegal aliens from Mexico, the Caribbean and Africa who slip into the Mexican-American crews from Texas and the black crews from Alabama and Florida.
The migrant workers are essential to the Eastern Shore economy and are hired, farmers say, because "no local labor will do the picking." Without the pickers, the farmers, who run one of the main industries of the Eastern shore made no money.
The recent arrest have a chilling effect on the rest of the workers and keep them out of the fields. The legal Mexican and Mexican-American farm workers say they are staying away because they are intimidated by what theysay are "gestapo" tactics and a "guilt by association" attitude among local residents that Spanish-speaking migrant must be illegal.
Sources said that police discovered the group of illegal aliens in Somerset County after a burglary investigation led to the arrest of a Mexican migrant. An illegal worker, he "got scared" after an immigration officer was called in to translate and the Mexican told them of other illegal workers in the area. That started the raids.
"It couldn't have come at a worse time," said H. William Overholt, a Pocomoke City farmer who had five workers arrested out of his field.
Overholt said immigration officials "just drove into my field and over the tomato crop. They had no warrant and they didn't contact me to tell me there would be a problem in my fields."
Irving Handy lost his last picking of cucumbers because of the raid on his camp. "I had to plow it under. I couldn't get anybody to pick it. It cost me $15,000."
Wallace Gray,district director for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Baltimore, said the raids would continue.
Gray said his office was "getting a great deal of information from people in the community about them (illegal workers) - from private citizens, from other other agencies, from one illegal alien turning in another.
Farmers, migrants, the crew bosses who round up the migrant workers and representatives from agencies who work with the farm workers interviewed last week say that double-dealing, vengeance, what some say is a $25 bounty (Immigration denies it), and just plain fear have led to the most recent arrests.
Crew leaders plead ignorance of migrant origins, saying the migrants have "green cards" or cards given to legal alien laborers and farmers plead ignorance, saying they rely on their crew bosses.
This year has not been a good year for migrants or farmers on the shore. A cold spring and summer drought conditions have produced smaller tomatoes than usual, cucumbers grew "too leggy" to be right for canning. The workers earn 35 cents for picking a half bushel of cucumbers and 25 cents for five-eights of a bushel of tomatoes. They can make from $8 to$25 a day.
In the camps, Mexican and black crews share barracks-style wooden buildings that are usually without indoor plumbing or heat. Four or five persons share a 10-by-14 foot room, and the only showers are usually in the communal bath house located in the center of camp.
The dining room is the lawn between the barracks, with migrants sitting on benches or standing up among the trucks and farm equipment.
Since the raids, other legal Mexican crews are leaving the Eastern Shore earlier than usual, journeying to other states where, they say, the immigration officials are not "so hot."
The raids began when state police and federal immigration authorities arrested 24 Mexicans on July 12 at the Westover camp, north of pocomoke City. The next day 33 more aliens were taken into custody in the same area and move to Baltimore.
The Somerset County Growes Association owns the Westover labor camp for the cooperative's 500-odd migrants. This year overcrowded conditions at the camp, which was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, forced many of the crew leaders and framers to rent houses in nearby areas for the overflow.
Sources working with the migrants said that many of the crews with illegal aliens were sent to these houses by their crew bosses for their own protection. It was in these houses and at the Westover camp where the arrests were made.
Overholt, a member of the Somerset County Cooperative, was furious at the arrests. "I forbade my crew leader to have illegals on the crew and she convinced me she hadn't any, but I dismissed that crew leader after the raid. I had to, I didn't want them (the officials) coming onto my field that way."
Irving Handy is also "hot" about the raids. "You can't find somebody who'll go in after another crew to pick." Handy said he thought immigration officials found out about illegal workers in his camp through a vengeful crew boss.
"He said he wanted more money for picking - said my other crew boss was cheating him," said Handgo. "So I told him to move on. He told me he'd tell immigration that wetbacks (illegal workers), were working for me. He left the camp on Thursday and immigration raided the camp on Monday."
"I know the immigration authorities are right." Overholt said, "but I don't like the tactics Immigration used and it comes at the wrong time. They wouldn't have attacked us (raided) unless it was peak season."
The migrants have been very quiet about the raids. As Spanish-speaking Americans, they say they are intimidated by agents requests for papers, for "green" cards used by legal aliens. Many carry their birth certificates with them at all times to prove they are citizens.
Crew leaders often say they don't know their workers are aliens. "They have green cards or Social Security numbers, so I assume they are legal," said one. Immigration officials admit, however, that green cards, driver's licenses and social security numbers are easy to duplicate or buy.
"The problem here is that there is no employer law, state or federal," said Father John Kelly, vice chairman of the Delmarva Ecumenical Council. The council sponsors various health and education programs for farm workers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
"The employer or farmer must be made responsible for those he employs. And they should make a multiple fine for those who break it. So if they catch one illegal worker on a farmer's land, it's $1,000, the next time it will be $5,000," said Kelly.
Federal law currently requires crew leaders or farm labor contractors, to register with the Department of Labor. Only 5,892 contractors have registered this year for the entire United States population, according to Ruth Barrett, compliance specialist for the Wage and Hour Division.
"They pick up violators constantly, but we never do as well as we would like," Barrett said. "We have only 860 enforcement people for the whole country and they have to enforce all the other regulations including minimum wages laws."
Gray said "most crew bosses know there are aliens in their crews. This last bunch we caught yesterday were very late arrivals, they had only been here two or three weeks."
The farmers say the latest crackdowns are completely frustrating their harvesting abilities. The Mexican crews, they say, are the hardest working migrants they have.
"They are industrious people," said Overholt, "but these raids on illegals, they are very disturbing to us it is another black eye for the farmer.
"I don't willingly hire the illegals, he said "but we need them, we need that stoop labor."