In rural Maine, rise of the machines pushes out migrant pickers

Sat Aug 10, 2013 10:33am EDT
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By Dave Sherwood

DEBLOIS, Maine (Reuters) - From beneath the brim of a tattered straw cap, Oscar Argueta, a 35-year-old coffee farmer from the cloud forests of Intibucá, Honduras, grins as he tops off a plastic crate of wild Maine blueberries.

Argueta said he can make as much as $1,000 per week here, with free housing, subsidized food and even health care provided, a deal that has long enticed migrants to Maine's blueberry fields from as far away as Mexico, Honduras and Haiti.

The work is back-breaking, he said, but the atmosphere festive. Mariachi music booms from loudspeakers, a roving lunch truck hawks authentic Mexican fare and workers jibe one another in their native Spanish.

Despite the perks, this year's trip will be Argueta's last to the far northeast of the United States, nearly 4,000 miles from the border with Mexico that is the focus of much of the nation's immigration debate.

"The tractors are taking all the good work," he said.

Argueta has a work visa and entered the country legally — a requirement as the larger blueberry growers adopt E-Verify, a federal electronic verification system that quickly catches false documents.

Jobs previously filled by those with dubious documents haven't transferred to Americans, as some proponents of E-Verify anticipated. Instead, many of Maine's largest growers have pushed to mechanize the harvest, eliminating many of the once-coveted seasonal jobs.

It is an unexpected consequence, observers said, of decades of uncertainty and political wrangling over immigration reform.   Continued...

Migrant workers from Mexico and Honduras rake wild blueberries from a field in Deblois, Maine August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Dave Sherwood