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California’s $43 Billion Farms Seek Immigrant Fix to Fill Jobs

August 14, 2013
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At stake for California, the largest agricultural-producing state, is a steady, trained workforce and production planning for farmers who supply the nation with almost half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. (Photo: Catherine Merlo, Agweb)  
 
 

The state’s $43.5 billion-a-year farm industry depends on a shadow workforce of undocumented Mexican immigrants that’s eroding under economic improvements back home and tighter U.S. border controls.

Alison Vekshin

Along the road to downtown Salinas, California, a green-and-white sign at the edge of a plowed field reads in Spanish: "Looking for work? Call or come in. We are hiring today."

While get-tough states such as Arizona made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to seek work, California’s $43.5 billion-a-year farm industry depends on a shadow workforce of undocumented Mexican immigrants that’s eroding under economic improvements back home and tighter U.S. border controls.

Local officials and growers eager to ease the worker shortage are looking to Congress to implement programs that would grant the undocumented workers legal status and provide a path to citizenship, among other changes in immigration policy.

"These are jobs nobody else wants," Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, 66, said in an interview in his city hall office. "If you extract these folks that are undocumented, the industry would be devastated."

At stake for California, the largest agricultural-producing state, is a steady, trained workforce and production planning for farmers who supply the nation with almost half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. For immigrants, it’s a higher standard of living, government-issued identification for bank accounts and driver’s licenses, and the power to report crimes such as robbery, car theft and sexual assaults without fear of deportation.

Citizenship Path

The Senate in June passed legislation backed by President Barack Obama that would create that path and a temporary worker program. The House has yet to act. California has the biggest number of undocumented immigrants, about 2.6 million in 2010, about a quarter of the number in the U.S., according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco.

The bill "would help ensure the stable agriculture workforce that industry needs in order to remain competitive with other nations and maintain our abundant food supply," the White House said in a report last month. "For millions of farmworkers who live in the shadows, the bill will provide an opportunity to earn citizenship by contributing to America’s agriculture economy."

In Salinas, a city of 154,000 framed by farm fields about an hour by car south of Silicon Valley, and not far from tony Pebble Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea, thousands of undocumented immigrants work 10-hour days, six days a week, for little pay picking fruits and vegetables by hand because machines would damage the delicate crops.

‘Salad Bowl’

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