June 30, 2016
By Nat Williams
Today’s Cobden looks different than yesterday’s Cobden. That’s partly due to the influx of foreign laborers who came to work on farms and now live here full time.
Deep in the heart of orchard country in Southern Illinois, workers from Mexico and Central America have been integrated into the community.
It’s a big change from decades ago, when migrants came and went, leaving little footprint in this Union County village and other regions of Illinois.
“It’s not unusual to see gentlemen sitting at a picnic table under the trees, playing cards or dominoes, and you may not hear a word of English,” said Ron Duncan, a community and economic development educator with University of Illinois Extension. “And yet, that’s fine. There’s no issue there.”
Barriers are indeed falling.
Bodegas offering native foodstuffs, authentic Mexican restaurants and specialty shops catering to Hispanics have sprung up all over.
“It’s my personal opinion, but you see a lot more engagement in the retail community by the Hispanic community than you would have years ago,” Duncan said.
“We see Hispanics engaging in the formal economy of the region. In the past, they were only relegated to the informal part of the economy. They are much more integrated, much more engaged in all sectors.”
Eloy Salazar, executive director of the Chicago-based Illinois Migrant Council, said the federal H2A visa program, which provides farmers with migrant labor, has changed the makeup of foreign-born workers.
The number of workers in the state illegally has shrunk by nearly 11,000.
“That has increased the number of requests for H2A visas,” Salazar said.
“We expect about 200 growers in Illinois to be filing applications to import foreign workers to do their harvesting. The remaining 23,000 farm workers in Illinois who come in or live seasonally are documented workers.”
Nonprofit organizations such as the IMC have long provided assistance to foreign-born workers in Illinois orchards, vegetables operations, dairies and other labor-intensive farm operations.
But funding has been problematic. A migrant camp based in Union County recently closed.
The state budget crisis has affected many of those services. The state has been without a budget for more than a year, a victim of political wrangling in Springfield.
IMC, which provides job training and supportive services to migrant and seasonal farm workers in Illinois, isn’t getting the state’s share of its funding.
“Regretfully, many of our efforts are being affected by the state budget crisis,” Salazar said.
“We’ve had to suspend five or six different programs because there is no funding from the state. It is going to create some real hardships as we move into the peak season in Illinois for agricultural activity.”
Meanwhile, the integration of Hispanic families into Union and surrounding counties is going well. There are welcoming arms on both sides, according to Duncan.
“It’s a two-way street. It’s not that all Hispanic workers have become like us,” he said.
“We’ve sort of met in the middle. There are also some things that we have adapted: the music, the festivals, the food. It’s been a really interesting melting pot on a micro scale. So far, it’s been relatively successful.”
Source: Illinois Farmer Today