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North America, Latin America
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Immigration, Migration, Kentucky, Farming, Agriculture, Mexico
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A Mexican migrant worker has coped with leaving behind his family for nine months each of the last 13 years, all for its own well-being.
Nick Wagner

2016 — student award of excellence

It’s become an all-too-familiar sort of ritual for Rosalino Santiago Garcia; the 33-year-old father grabs his two sons and baby daughter for one last squeeze before he pulls close his wife, Sabina, to share one last peck on the cheek, and then, like he has done nine times before, Santiago Garcia departs the plot of land he has called home for his entire life with his seam-stretched suitcase and sweat-caked hat in hand. There wasn’t a going away party. No mementos. No tears. For Santiago Garcia and his family, it’s become an accepted part of life. 

Santiago Garcia’s family has grown accustom to being torn apart by over 2,500 miles of land for nine months out of a year. The migrant farm worker from Santa Ana, Oaxaca, Mexico, labors in tobacco fields outside of Fountain Run, Kentucky, from May through February to support his family. Last year was number 13 away from home. He’s one of some 20 migrant workers on the farm legally admitted to the United States via an H-2A agriculture permit, which many of the one million foreign-born field workers currently in the United States use to find work. 

Without the expansive number of workers that make sacrifices just like Santiago Garcia, the American economy would suffer tremendously. According to the Department of Agriculture, more than 140,000 workers were permitted to the United States via the H-2A form in 2015, double the amount of permits issued just four years ago. The number of permitted workers last year comprised about 10% of the agricultural workforce. If not for the migrant workforce, the American public could not enjoy high quality, low-cost, agricultural products all year round. 

The current political season has once again fixed a set of crosshairs on undocumented immigrants through comments made by none other than Donald Trump. His promise to deport more than 11 million undocumented immigrants would decimate the American economy. Not only would it shrink an ever-aging labor force by 11 million people, but it would also cost the federal government anywhere from $400 to $600 billion. The nation’s GDP would take a $1.6 trillion hit, impacting the United States’ role as a major competitor in the global market. 

The industry that would take the biggest hit, should Trump or any other politician be allowed to enforce such immigration policies, would be the agricultural sector, where Santiago Garcia makes the money to feed and shelter his family – the same sector he worked in as an undocumented migrant for first three years he was in the United States. According to John McLaren, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia, there would be an abrupt drop in farm income and a sharp rise in food prices. In addition to the agricultural sector being impacted, every industry across the board would be affected, as immigrants, whether legal or not, will always put a portion of their salary back into the economy, as Santiago Garcia does when he shops for work wear at Wal-Mart or when he patronizes the Fountain Run general store when he buys several bottles of Gatorade to quench his thirst after working a 12-hour day.

With the financial help of this grant, I intend to complete documenting Santiago Garcia both at home and in between rows of tobacco plants to furnish a meaningful story by giving the perspective of what it is like for Santiago Garcia in both sides of his dichotomous life. This is crucial to turn the project into a more cohesive piece, as his family is the driving force behind his pursuit to be employed in the United States. While Americans hear Republican presidential candidates shouting for the need to build a wall almost daily, never do these tirades connect audiences to actual migrants - people trying to support themselves and their loved ones. My goal is to help two communities understand one another. By making Santiago Garcia a character of a narrative that goes beyond the statistics and news chatter, I’m confident that the support from the Alexia grant will allow Americans to better understand the motivations of migrants and add to this important, timely topic in an impactful way.

Read more
Rosalino Santiago Garcia, 33, harvests a crop of burley tobacco near Fountain Run, Kentucky. The migrant worker from Santa Ana, Oaxaca, Mexico, leaves his wife and three children for nine months at a time to earn a living wage. Nick Wagner
Santiago Garcia takes time away from his lunch break to call his wife from the porch of his trailer home on a tobacco farm near Fountain Run, Kentucky. Now in his 13th year working on American soil, Santiago Garcia spends each day knowing he won't be able to get back the time he has lost while away from his family. "It's hard to leave my kids behind... It always makes me sad," Santiago Garcia said. "But I believe that any human in any job will always put their family first." Nick Wagner
After a trip to Santa Ana's center for sweets, Santiago Garcia gives his son, Leandro, a shoulder-ride home on the same road he traveled his entire life. His love of the land has influenced his decision to build a home and start a family in the same place he grew up. Nick Wagner
As Leandro sleeps, Santiago Garcia tickles Josue before bedtime in the family's shared bedroom in Santa Ana. Santiago Garcia built his family's home on the same plot of land that his parents own, and he intends to call this home for the rest of his life. Nick Wagner
Always being a protective father, Santiago Garcia holds onto Josue's hand as they wait for a car to pass by outside of their home in Santa Ana. Nick Wagner
As Santiago Garcia's two-week break from work quickly elapses, taking care of the children by herself in Santa Ana weighs into Garcia Pacheco's mind. Nick Wagner
Outside of their home in Santa Ana, Garcia Pacheco gives a farewell kiss to Santiago Garcia, and it will be the last kiss shared for nine more months. "I'm not able to talk with my family often, so I miss them," Santiago Garcia said. "But everything has a sacrifice. Everything you need has a price." Nick Wagner
Traveling north to Kentucky for his 13th year working under a temporary agricultural work permit, Santiago Garcia crosses the United States-Mexico border into Laredo, Texas. It is the same border where Santiago Garcia crossed illegally, without a permit, his first two times he traveled when he was still a teenager, hidden underneath a van's floorboards with 12 others. Now, with the security of an H-2A agricultural work permit, Santiago Garcia's family can rest assured, knowing he can safely cross the border without the risk of being harmed. Nick Wagner
A 33-hour drive from Monterrey, Mexico, to Fountain Run, Kentucky, gets the best of Santiago Garcia, as the 14-passenger van drives through Texas. It acts as the last leg of a journey that lasts more than 70 hours on the road, a journey Santiago Garcia has made time and again. Nick Wagner
Although he hoped he could remain in Mexico with his family for good, Santiago Garcia is back to riding on flatbed trailers to travel between worksites on the same tobacco farm he's returned to for over a decade near Fountain Run, Kentucky. Santiago Garcia was optimistic that last year would be his last working in the United States, but poor working conditions and low wages in Mexico forced him to leave his family behind yet again.

“The work isn’t easy, not everyone can do it… I’m happy knowing I can provide for my parents and my family,” Santiago Garcia said. “But at the same time, it saddens me knowing I can’t see or be with them, so I try not to think of them… It’s the sacrifice I have to make.” Nick Wagner