Torres-Castillo, a native of Morelos, Mexico, has been working on the Dan Dunsmoor onion farm for the past seven years, both in the packing shed and out “in the muck,” as onion farmers refer to their fields. Border Patrol officers picked up him and six others when they stopped at a Southwest Oswego convenience store after work on Feb. 8.
Torres-Castillo has been married to Laura Torrez, a 29-year-old Oswego resident, since 2001. The couple has two children, including a 2-month-old born with a hole in his heart. Torres-Castillo’s status as the spouse and the father of U.S. citizens does not automatically grant him the right to stay here. “It used to be that marriage was a very strong and compelling case for citizenship,” said Pat Rector, who coordinates the Central New York Labor-Religion Coalition. “But it is now much more difficult for spouses who are undocumented to remain in the country.”
Torrez said she and her husband did not know the process for getting him legal status. “I never knew how to go about it. A lot of people were getting married just to get legal, so they made it more difficult. Right now I’m going to work on getting letters from people who know Victor, and we’ll show them to the judge.”
The Labor-Religion Coalition asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to reduce Torres-Castillo’s bail and allow him to rejoin his family, and ICE did, from $5,000 to $1,500. Coalition member Caroline Kim traveled to Buffalo on Feb. 22 to post his bail, then went on to Batavia to pick him up and bring him home.
The money to spring Victor came from the family that employs him. Bill Dunsmoor, who put up the funds, is the brother of Dan Dunsmoor, owner of the farm where Torres-Castillo works. Bill Dunsmoor was on the police force in Oswego for 22 years, served as a city alderman, and briefly served as mayor in the wake of Oswego Mayor John Gosek’s resignation in 2005.
“The woman from the Labor-Religion Coalition called me,” said Dunsmoor, referring to Rector. “She said they were working to get Victor reunited with his family. I said that my brother and I would do whatever we could to get him back with his wife and kids. I put up the money but my brother will get it back to me. We told them we’d keep his job open as long as it took. These people are more than employees, they’re almost like friends.”
According to Dunsmoor, his brother “gets two forms of identification from each worker. They’re all on a payroll, get a paycheck every week. The law restricts us from going too far to investigate them.” Neither he nor Dan had any idea that Torres-Castillo and his co-workers were here illegally, said Dunsmoor, but one thing is for sure: The seven workers, who hailed from both Mexico and Guatemala, are sorely missed.
“We’re limping along,” Dunsmoor explained. “These guys are hard workers, good men. Some have been here seven or eight years. They pay federal income tax, Social Security, and my brother matches those contributions.”
Dunsmoor argued that in addition to picking our onions, the visiting farm workers may also be helping to fund our retirement. “They say there are 16 million people in the country illegally. If 8 million people are working illegally at minimum wage, let’s say they’re contributing 42 cents an hour to Social Security, which the employer matches. Round it up to a dollar to make the math easy: They’re putting $8 million an hour into the Social Security fund, and that’s money that now will never be collected.”
Rector, whose swift action may have prevented Torres-Castillo’s deportation, is seeking to convince the government to allow him to stay here permanently. “We believe no public purpose is being served by separating this family. In fact, Victor’s deportation would cause considerable public harm, not to mention the devastating effect of Victor’s deportation on these children’s future.” The baby, Angel Jose, needs surgery within the next few months. His 7-year-old son Anthony has asthma, and Torrez suffers from diabetes. Victor Torres-Castillo also suffers from arthritis, and the weeks of being cooped up have made it difficult for him to walk.
“I know the Border Patrol are doing what they have to do,” noted Dunsmoor. “They’ve got their job. I’m not here to criticize or compliment anyone, but somebody has to do something or the farmers will be out of business. The government at the highest levels doesn’t know what it’s going to do about immigration laws.” He noted that a neighboring packing house has undergone several raids, which stripped them of their workforce.
Given the immigration crackdown of the past year, Dunsmoor said he fears the days are over when farmers can operate with immigrant labor. “We’d love to have another Mexican crew, and fill up the barn with ’em,” he said. “They work hard. But we can’t take the risk that our whole crew would be deported and they’d shut us down all over again.” Asked if he could get local workers to take the jobs by offering a higher wage, say $12 per hour, he said, “Yeah, you’d get people, but the farmer would go out of business. The price of onions won’t support that.”
For the moment, Torres-Castillo is awaiting a letter from ICE informing him of his next court date. He and Laura are trying to find a lawyer. (The government does not supply lawyers for immigration matters). The Labor-Religion Coalition is trying to help Victor secure legal assistance, according to Kim, who said the pace of immigration detentions has picked up so much in the last year that the immigration lawyers she has called have full voice-mail boxes. Labor-Religion activists have helped bail out more than a dozen workers in the past year.
Kim is working with others in the Labor-Religion Coalition to organize what they are calling a New Sanctuary Movement to advocate for immigrant workers. “Victor actually has a pretty good chance of being able to stay here,” she said. “For a lot of workers, there really isn’t much relief under current immigration law. A Sanctuary Movement could educate people, put a focus on the human side of this whole thing. It is easy to dehumanize someone if you don’t know who they are.”