I expected that my time spent assisting Sue, a nurse practitioner serving migrant camps in rural Maryland, would be an eye-opening experience. I expected to see men and women who lived in poor conditions. I expected to see laborers with unmet medical needs. But I did not expect to get so attached to our patients — or for one of our patients to be shot and killed before the week was through.
Migrant workers are some of the most vulnerable people in our labor system. Those with temporary work visas are not subject to all of the same labor protections as U.S. citizens; most are secluded in remote, rural areas. They work long hours for little pay, and, because of their mobile status, many keep the money they earn in cash.
Last Thursday, three people broke into the migrant farm workers quarters just before midnight and robbed them all. Armed with guns, the three robbers demanded their wages. The attackers hit one of the migrant workers in the face with a handgun; in response, one of his friends began to defend him, arguing with the robbers. The farm worker was shot and killed, and the robbers fled.
When Sue and I pulled into their camp the next day to deliver medicines, we found a police team already there investigating the crime. “What happened?” we asked. Shock slowly set in as the workers told us, haltingly, what had transpired.
“I don’t believe it,” Sue said. “Who would rob a migrant camp?”
This incident is tragic on so many levels. The audacity of robbing individuals who are among the poorest in American society, working some of the most physically demanding jobs, is maddening. These farm laborers follow harvests around the country; when a harvest is at its peak, they may work incredibly long hours, seven days a week, sometimes without a break. This is the extent to which these farm workers are willing to go in order to make a living. It seems to me their struggle is excessive enough without being victimized by thieves and robbers.
The incident also has the hallmarks of a hate crime. Many believe that, if a farm worker is Latino, he must also be an “illegal.” But each year, Maryland’s farms — like farms across the entire United States — hire international farm workers on temporary work visas. And, most strikingly, it has remained true that no one else wants to work these jobs — not even in this economy.
This spring, the Maryland crab houses, a $22 million industry and another major user of migrant labor, didn’t get the visas through for the 300 workers they usually invite. They held a well-publicized job fair for local residents. Even with unemployment at 9 percent, only a fraction of those jobs — 15 of them — were filled, necessitating the closure of several crab houses.
The man who was killed was supporting a family back home. If no information is found about how to contact them, his family might not know for months what happened to him — if they ever find out. This one incident, a single midnight robbery, has taken far more than the few hundred dollars earned in a week of 14-hour workdays.
This incident was particularly jarring to me because I had been working closely with health practitioners. After days of checking people’s vital signs, monitoring conditions and figuring out how to best improve people’s lives through their health and the intricacies of the human body, this reality — shot and killed — seems particularly stark and antithetical. This was one person among many whose allergies, diabetes, arthritis and hypertension I was helping monitor. Murder seems even more at odds with humanity when coming at it from the perspective of medicine.
For the victim’s friends and co-workers, recently robbed of their hard-earned paychecks and witnesses to this traumatic crime, the day is a sober one; but aside from the interviews they give to the police, it is off to work as usual.
As I stand in the watermelon field watching the farm workers begin their labor again, I appreciate anew just how precious life is. Now feels like a good time to remember the value of every day.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.