Heightened Policing Keeps Farmworkers Vulnerable in the Wake of Florence

The sky was blood red on Wednesday morning just after sunrise. For anyone with a working TV and the time and inclination to watch it, the warnings have been dire since Monday. A massive hurricane was fast approaching from the Atlantic Ocean, of a size and force never before seen in North Carolina.

The record breaking storm, which stalled over the port city of Wilmington for three days, had 100 mph winds and measured 500 miles in diameter, covering almost the entire state. Apart from the battering winds, an unprecedented amount of rain has dropped on North Carolina, filling its lakes and reservoirs to the brim, leading to widespread flooding. Even a portion of Interstate 95, the highway which runs from the northernmost corner of Maine to the end of the Keys in Florida, has been shut down as it turned into a river.

Meanwhile, the Neuse, Cape Fear and Little Rivers, in addition to their tributaries, are beyond overflowing, with the worst yet to come. On Friday, the Cape Fear had reached capacity at 12 feet, but on Monday it topped that at 55 feet, and crested to 61.4 feet on Wednesday.

Fayetteville, a city on the Cape Fear near Fort Bragg, is home to many military veterans, as well as a large Puerto Rican community that has swollen since 2017’s Hurricane Maria. A widespread evacuation order was issued, with a curfew and restrictions on movement. Mayor Mitch Colvin announced, “Evacuate or identify your next of kin,” evoking Old English civil law concerning the notification of one’s closest blood relative in case of death.

Going south towards South Carolina sits Lumberton, along the Lumber River. While logs cut from North Carolina forests used to be sent downstream to build South Carolina centuries ago, the city is also the home of the Lumbee Indians, a tribe of Native Americans that have yet to be recognized by the US government despite their population and ample historical record. Decorative street signs point to the “Riverfront,” but the river has swallowed all the streets as well as the surrounding agricultural fields.

In 2016, another hurricane, Matthew, caused levees to be breached and flooded Goldsboro and Kinston, cities to the east along the Neuse River. Residents who had lost their homes and businesses were only informed in July, a full two years later, that federal assistance was on the agenda. Florence has caused the Neuse to already flood far more than it did during Matthew. This time around, Kinston was cut in half by flood waters on Friday, as Army trucks tried to reach people stranded on the far side.

The military may be a solace to some who live in these besieged towns, but for workers from other countries, including many families, it may not be a welcome sight. The past few years have seen more and more Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (ICE) raids looking for undocumented immigrants, and the federal agency has increasingly taken on the trappings of a paramilitary organization in both its look and the aggressive tactics it employs. Fear of family separation, imprisonment and deportation is preventing people from approaching the shelters that have been set up in schools and churches. Even so, the shelters are mostly full.

In terms of immigrant farm workers, many can’t even be informed of the shelters as the flood waters rise around them. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015 quantified the numbers of secret agricultural labor camps in North Carolina. The study estimated that 37% of North Carolina’s farmworker camps, more than one third, were “hidden,” which was defined by the study as “at least 0.15 miles from an all-weather road or located behind natural or manufactured objects.”

A trip taken by law students working for Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Farmworker Unit before Hurricane Arthur located one such camp somewhere between Fayetteville and Lumberton using GPS coordinates, driving through tobacco fields on dirt roads that were no more than rutted cuts between the plantings. First thought to have been abandoned, the visit turned up a migrant family group originally from Veracruz, where their tobacco farm had once flourished before market downturns and increased organized crime. Returning from a hard day of work, the family showed Legal Aid where they were lodged — a particle board chicken coop furnished with bare, rusted bedframes — as their handicapped five year old chased some of the displaced chickens outside. Before the child could be contacted by North Carolina Migrant Education Program for schooling and health services, the family had already been chased away by managers who feared they were going to lodge a complaint.

These types of labor camps are of course especially vulnerable during the hurricane and its subsequent flooding. Under normal weather conditions, the camps cannot be readily located by federal and local agencies to ensure the safety and hygiene of living and working conditions, the correct usage of dangerous pesticides, the provision of educational services to children, and other necessary measures to protect the wellbeing of the people who live and work there. Although farm workers and their families from other countries should be provided with H2A work visas and enjoy all the protections of US and North Carolina labor laws, the very nature of these camps’ inaccessibility makes ensuring protections difficult to impossible.

The fragility of their substandard housing amongst flat fields of tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton or corn, or close by chicken and hog farms, affords little protection against the hurricane and flooding. For those closer to town, the flood-saturated ground, a thin layer of sod atop the South’s ubiquitous red clay, presents another serious threat in the form of falling trees. The shallowly rooted southern pines and aging oaks have already caused the deaths of two infants, one along with his mother, in separate incidents. The inferior housing of the poor, often in the form of trailers in this part of the country, is no match for the tall trees, which have been randomly smashing even sturdier homes all around the region during this weather event.

Industrial chicken producer Sanderson Farms, with a large presence in both Kinston and Lumberton, announced on Friday that it had lost 1.7 million chickens in the storm. Joe Sanderson said, “It appears that the Company’s employees and independent contract producers experienced no loss of life or serious injuries,” even though the company admits that it has been cut off from 33 of its farms in the Lumberton area due to the floodwaters. According to company reports, those farms house another 6 million chickens and depend on immigrant labor to tend them.

The possession of an H2A visa is not a guarantee of income. The H2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program was designed with the employer, increasingly a large corporate agribusiness, and not the worker in mind. In a force majeur event such as Hurricane Florence, farmworkers can be summarily dismissed to protect corporate revenues. Many farmworkers, having used up family savings to travel to the US, can’t sustain the loss of income. While companies and owners may have insurance and government programs to cover them, even H2A visa-holders have little recourse. For other workers who may owe large amounts to unscrupulous recruiters who charged fees to arrange jobs and never provided visas, the sudden loss can be devastating.

Legal Aid of NC has enhanced its current Facebook page with information about seeking financial compensation for farmworkers’ injuries, lost wages and damages due to the hurricane. The link points to the North Carolina Department of Disaster Unemployment, which hasn’t updated its page since Hurricane Irene in 2011.