- Associated Press - Sunday, November 1, 2015

LAKE WALES, Fla. (AP) - A group of people are sitting in an empty lot in Immokalee. A man in a van or truck picks them up and after a couple hours, they arrive at a field in Polk County, where they have been brought to harvest saw palmetto berries. As they fill their bags with small orange, green and deep blue berries in the pre-fall Florida heat, a gentle whirring rises in the distance and gets louder. Moments later, in a cloud of scrub dust, a helicopter lands and Polk County Sheriff’s Office Agricultural Crimes deputies emerge. The workers are arrested. The man in the van is nowhere to be found.

This is how Polk County Public Defender Bob Young, whose office is now representing more than a dozen migrant workers accused of illegally harvesting palmetto berries, describes the situation.

“All they are trying to do is support their families with agricultural work,” Young said. “They have no reason to believe what they are doing is wrong and it means deportation if they plea to the theft offense.

“It’s deplorable.”

According to Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, this is nothing new. Many men and women in Immokalee have been rooted in migrant farming for years, working in citrus groves or picking tomatoes or chilies, traveling wherever they need to go for whatever happens to be in season at the time.

During palmetto berry season, someone down in Immokalee, most often a migrant worker himself, will get a group together, find someone with a van or truck, and pay the driver to take the crew to the field and back, Benitez said.

The berries, called la bolitas by pickers (Spanish for little balls), have a short-lived season - around two weeks - in between the summer and winter harvests, making for a crucial financial piece in the livelihood of many.

“It’s a very temporary job and it comes around when there is no other work to be done around Immokalee. Every year there is a bigger demand for these berries because of the laboratories that use them to make medicines and drugs,” Benitez said. “Because of the demand, workers go and they work.

“They pick the berries and they sell the berries. It’s become a tradition.”

A short, scrubby palm, the saw palmetto gets its name from the fan-shaped, saw-tooth edged leaves. Native to Florida, the saw palmetto grows wild and its berries, which are roughly 2 centimeters long, can be dried for medicinal purposes. They only grow in Florida, the Bahamas and coastal areas from Texas to the Carolinas.

According to the website drugs.com, which compiles information about prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines & natural products, saw palmetto berries were first introduced into Western medicine in the 1870s for prostate and other urologic conditions; they were added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia in 1906.

For a number a years, saw palmetto remained rather unpopular, but recently interest has spiked. Currently, the berries are ranked in the top 10 herbal products sold in the U.S. and are being used primarily to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, commonly known as enlarged prostate.

A few years ago, after decades without regulation, the Florida Forest Service began issuing Special Use Permits for $10 a day during palmetto berry season, July 31 to Nov. 1, for people who were interested in harvesting the berries on Florida State Forest property.

But, according to a letter sent from FFS Director Jim Karel to Sen. Dwight Bullard in the 39th district, the permits were discontinued in June. The reason: black bears.

“As reports of human/bear conflicts increased in Florida in recent years, the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission considered a comprehensive approach .. to reduce the likelihood of serious incidents involving humans and bears in the future,” the letter states. “One recognized strategy is to deter bears from seeking alternative sources of food in urban areas by preserving bears’ primary sources of food in their habitats.”

Although this may seem like a move to protect not just humans but the black bear population as well, it’s hard to say whether that’s truly the case.

The discontinuation of picking permits, coupled with a steady rise in demand, has turned saw palmetto berries into a relatively lucrative cash crop.

“They have become very valuable things,” Young said. “It’s now a multimillion dollar industry worldwide.”

Tenth District Assistant Public Defender Darlene Williams, who is working alongside Bob Young on the Polk County cases, said the price of the berries has nearly quadrupled in just a matter of years - from roughly 40 cents a pound to today’s going rate of around $1.65.

Williams, who spent years with the American Civil Liberties Union, said there was outreach in Immokalee earlier this year to let residents know about the permitting changes but it didn’t take into account the language barrier.

“Apparently when the Florida Forest Service decided not to issue the permits this year they made a point to distribute fliers that were translated into Spanish and Creole but not the Mayan language,” she said. “It’s possible that some of the others down there were aware of it but not the people we are seeing.”

Williams is talking about Guatemalan migrants who speak a rather rare Mayan language called Q’anjob’al (pronounced ‘kanjobal’). According to reports by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, there are approximately 77,700 native Q’anjob’al speakers in Guatemala and a mere 7,000 in Mexico. Statistics for the U.S. are not readily available but it is safe to say the numbers are very low.

Williams said that for those speaking Q’anjob’al, 12 of the 14 arrested in these cases, “It was inadequate notice. Even if they speak some rudimentary Spanish,” she said. “They can’t read it.”

Carmen Mendez, one of two Q’anjob’al interpreters in the state, said that in many cases it is not even possible to translate every word.

“I have been doing this for 24 years and I make everyone aware that there is no translation for some of these words,” she said.

Mendez is not involved in the cases at hand, but has dealt with similar situations in the past.

“They don’t know that that’s illegal,” she said. “We have to work with them and sometimes get to a level where you might talk to a 4-year-old child - that’s how much we have to lower our level.”

But before the migrants sit down with someone like Mendez or Williams, they come face to face with law enforcement, specifically the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Agricultural Crimes Unit, headed up by 15-year PCSO veteran Paul Wright.

Wright, like others, said this type of crime is not uncommon.

“It’s happening a little more frequently now because of the price they are getting for the berries,” Wright said, “but we have seen it in the past.”

The largest of these instances came in 2011, before permits were issued, when 33 people were arrested in a north Lakeland subdivision with 28,000 pounds of illegally harvested palmetto berries packed into 20-pound sacks.

At 40 cents a pound, the haul was valued at over $11,000. By today’s standards, roughly $1.65 a pound, the value would have been nearly $50,000.

The 33 people were each charged with violating a county ordinance that forbids taking of natural resources from private and public lands - a second degree misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 60 days and jail or a $500 fine. None of them was taken to jail and each was handed a notice to appear before they left the scene.

On Aug. 28, nine people were found leaving a property in Lake Wales carrying bags. In total, the nine men and women had 406 pounds of berries worth an estimated $670 - that’s an average of about 45 pounds per person, or $75.

On Sept. 3, five people were arrested leaving a piece of property in Frostproof with 496 pounds of stolen berries valued at $820; that’s an average of about 99 pounds per person, or $163.

All 14 of these individuals were arrested, charged with felony grand theft, and booked into the Polk County jail.

In Florida, grand theft is anything above $300 in value.

“The agriculture unit has a good relationship with the farm bureau network (Florida Farm Bureau) and cattle ranchers’ association (Florida Cattleman’s Association); we work hand-in-hand with them. We get tips from people who see a bunch of folks get out of a van and walk into a wooded area. Someone will see them and give us a call,” Wright said.

“We’re not talking hundreds, but we’ve made numerous arrests over the last month.”

Wright said that it is common practice to add up the overall value of merchandise, in this case berries, and charge those arrested with the takings of the group, rather than the individual.

“We catch them and we recover the berries they have already picked and pulled off the palmetto bush, “he said. “Everybody participates in the actual theft, so if it is determined to be grand theft they will all be charged with grand theft_everybody is contributing to the amount that is stolen.”

Robert Young disagrees with this on a fundamental level.

“Our view is that these berries typically fall to the ground and rot and the landowner hasn’t typically tried to sell them or raise them - the idea that it’s theft is a stretch,” he said.

“Really, it’s the same as someone stealing pine cones or acorns from your driveway.”

On top of that, Williams said that in these cases, it’s not an individual who is listed as the victim: one is listed as a property belonging to a subdivision, the other, an investment group.

“These are not agricultural lands at all - it’s property, probably speculative property, purchased by developers,” she said.

“If they develop, will those palmettoes be preserved? Where is the value to the owner? They aren’t being farmed so where is the harm to the owner beyond a trespass?”

Benitez agrees that the punishment does not fit the crime, but he said it would be wrong to assume the people involved are unaware of potential consequences.

“During the work you are really just praying to God that you don’t get bitten by a snake or attacked by a wild animal and that the police don’t come and grab you. People know the risk but you pray it doesn’t happen,” he said. “The truth is that the permits don’t really matter for the worker; if there is a good price for the berries, the workers will go pick them. These workers are trying to feed their families.”

And once the workers are arrested, another set of problems rolls out.

Q’anjob’al interpreter Mendez said that many of those put in jail are clueless when it comes to court process.

“Most of these people are not aware that they have the right to ask for an interpreter or are afraid to ask for one,” she said.

This, according to Mendez, can and does lead to confusion, and could even see someone taking a plea deal they do not understand.

“The attorney assumes they speak Spanish because they say yes to everything,” she said, “and eventually they (the court) will say ‘is someone forcing you to take a plea’ and they (the migrant worker) will say yes. That’s when the cases finally get stuck.”

That’s where interpreters like Mendez step in.

And that, according to Young, is one of the reasons he thinks these cases need to be handled much differently.

“All in all, it is just an expensive prosecution,” he said. “When we communicate with them they have to send for this expensive interpreter.”

Mendez said that, depending on the case, the state pays her from $50 to $100 an hour, plus travel expenses.

With 12 Q’anjob’al speaking defendants facing charges right now, it’s easy to see how quickly the taxpayer cost can add up.

On top of cost, Williams said, these charges are considered “crimes of moral turpitude,” which can lead to major consequences.

“It can be a deportable offense even if adjudication is withheld,” she said. “We are criminalizing it in a way that can do irreparable harm. The stakes are pretty high with these folks.”

Williams drew comparison between this type of enforcement and the “draconian laws” put in place in Georgia years ago, which led to a shortage of migrant farm workers, “crops rotting in the field,” and overall bad news for the crop economy.

Here, she said, we could potentially see the same kind of unexpected repercussions if lawmakers and enforcers continue to tighten up.

“Maybe when strawberry and tomato prices go thought the roof, people will notice.”

___

Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com

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