SUMAS, WASHINGTON — They walked along a dusty, country road, fields of ripe blueberries stretching for miles.
This was a protest march to Sarbanand Farms, in this tiny town near the Canadian border, where a Mexican farmworker took ill last week. The man, Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old father, died days later at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
At the front of the march were some of the 70 farmworkers who were recently fired by the farm. Among them, Miguel Angel Ramirez Salazar, who has been coming to the U.S. for 15 years on the federal H-2A visa program. He’s also worked in Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia.
“I love to come work here because it’s a way to help ourselves,” he said. “There are no jobs in Mexico.”
Ramirez was one of 519 foreign workers hired to work at Sarbanand Farms this season on the H-2A visa. It allows employers to bring in foreign agricultural workers if there’s a seasonal labor shortage. The employer provides housing, transportation across the Mexican border and a fixed wage.
“It’s a blessing to be able to cross the border legally, without breaking the laws,” Ramirez said. “That makes us proud.”
This is Ramirez’s third summer at Sarbanand. He’s seen problems before but stayed mum.
“We were quiet,” he said. “We never wanted to talk, out of fear.”
But when a fellow worker became seriously ill, Salazar said the men became concerned about his medical care. They called for a work stoppage to demand answers and to push for cold water in the fields and better food. A kitchen cook last year said she was fired after refusing to cook spoiled pork.
On their pink slips, Sarbanand checked the box for insubordination.
“We stopped work for one day to improve our contracts,” Ramirez said. “I was just exercising my rights. But now I’m going home empty handed.”
When the protesters reach the farm, two security guards stood at the gate. The air was hot, in the mid-80s, dusty from the fields and smoky from wildfires across the Canadian border.
Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who represents the fired workers, asked for a manager. No dice.
“Could you please tell them that the workers are in desperate circumstances?” Morrison said. “They’d like to get paid the money that they’re owed for their checks — and whether they’re going to get paid for transportation back to Mexico.”
Morrison walked past the gate into the manager’s office. “I’m here to talk about the checks for the workers,” he called out. “Hello?”
Guard: “Sir, please exit the building.”
Eventually, a manager said he would call Morrison later. Until then, workers are stranded without jobs and no money to get home.
Two miles down the road, a neighbor opened his property to the fired workers. Volunteers turned out to help. They donated food, tents, a generator and supplies. They sent pizzas.
Volunteer Mona Galindo chopped a watermelon and handed it out as the sweaty marchers returned to camp.
“Yesterday I came with my sisters and we just saw the need,” she said.
The march was personal for Galindo.
“I wanted to make a sign but I didn’t have time to make it, in memory of my mom and dad because they were migrants workers and never got to see justice,” she said.
Washington is one of the top five states that uses the H-2A program, with nearly 14,000 workers brought in last year. But it’s a system that has sparked controversy and lawsuits.
Rosalinda Guillen, a longtime farmworker advocate in Whatcom County and director of the non-profit Community to Community Development, firmly opposes the guest worker program.
“The problem has always been that farmworkers are afraid to complain,” Guillen said. She said the program sets the stage for worker abuse and exploitation.
“They can’t strike, they can’t form a union, they have nobody to complain to, they have no family, no community connections,” she said. “No way to exert what little rights they have in the H-2A program.”
Guillen said she wants regulators to be more visible and active in the fields, so workers can have a clear avenue for complaints or concerns.
Dan Fazio, with the Washington Farm Labor Association – the growers association, disagreed.
“The H-2A legal worker program regulations are unprecedented in their stringency and worker protections,” Fazio said. “Matter of fact it’s caused the program not to grow because there's too much red tape.”
Fazio works directly with many Northwest growers to bring in guest workers, and he said employers are held accountable to strict rules.
“Especially in Washington there are several agencies who will investigate and take action if the regulations were violated,” he said.
The growers association handled Sarbanand’s H-2A contracts the past two years, but not this season. Fazio said he encouraged the farm to make improvements in local management, and the company decided to go its own direction. Sarbanand is a subsidiary of Munger Farms, a large California company that partners with Naturipe Farms and sells berries to large grocery chains including Costco, Safeway and Whole Foods.
At Sarbanand Farms, various state and federal agencies are now investigating health and safety standards, how employees are treated, and possible workplace factors around this recent death.
“We’ll look at everything,” said Tim Church, a spokesman for Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Church said four others from the state agency were in Sumas this week, interviewing Sarbanand workers.
“It’s a tragedy for the family and the workers,” Church said. “It’s important to try to determine if this death was related to the workplace.”
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division oversees aspects of the H-2A program and has also opened an investigation of Sarbanand Farms.
“This process involves interviewing workers, employers, and well as looking at payroll records and other documents,” said Jose Carnivalli, a Labor Department spokesman. Carnivalli declined to comment on the scope of the investigation and whether it includes a review of the fatality.
At the makeshift encampment, two Catholic priests arrived late in the afternoon for an unconventional mass. Families from nearby towns join the workers on the lawn.
The mass was to honor Honesto Silva Ibarra. The cause of his death remains unconfirmed, although a representative of Sarbanand Farms said he died of a heart attack unrelated to work conditions.
But air quality conditions in Sumas the week Silva became ill were different than usual – what the federal government calls “unhealthy” because of the wildfires blazing across the border. Such smoky conditions can exacerbate lung and heart conditions for any individuals who stay outside for extended periods of time.
Sarbanand Farms provided a declaration from Silva’s nephew, who was also working on an H-2A visa at Sarbanand.
“We were treated well at all times and Sarabanand Farms is a good employer,” reads the declaration from Rodrigo Ibarra Silva. “My uncle suffered a cardiac arrest. My understanding is that he died due to complications with his diabetes and not as a result of any working conditions at Sarbanand Farms.”
The declaration provided to KUOW is unsigned, in English and does not include the name of the translator.
It also states Sarbanand will undertake all costs and arrangements to transport Honesto Silva Ibarra’s body to Mexico. A company representative said the body is now in Mexico.
As the Catholic mass gets underway, this loss hits home for Miguel Angel Ramirez, the longtime H-2A worker. His cross-border career has also come with deep sacrifices.
“For my four children, to see their first steps as they learn walk, to pick them up when they fall,” he said. “To be together for a birthday, a new dawn, a chance to give thanks to God as a family. I've been gone from them too much.”
But to die here, like Honesto Silva, that's his worst fear.