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.
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.
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.
The Salinas Valley, which locals call the Salad Bowl of the World, brings in $4 billion a year supplying about half of the strawberries and lettuce consumed from New York to Los Angeles.
The undocumented immigrants live in rented, makeshift residences -- sheds in back of houses, garages sectioned into living spaces, berthed mobile homes -- because they can’t afford to rent an apartment or lack the identification or credit history to qualify. They pay thousands of dollars to cross the border, cash their paychecks at grocery stores and drive without licenses.
In Salinas, the undocumented workers find a kind of embrace and protection.
"We don’t go out and knock on people’s doors and ask them if they’re legal," said Gunter, whose city is 75 percent Hispanic, up from 26 percent in 1980, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. "They’re all under the radar."
Among them is a worker who calls himself Felipe. He said in an interview that he’s an undocumented immigrant who works six days a week, 10 hours a day, for $530 in the strawberry fields of nearby Watsonville.
The 33-year-old said he paid $2,800 to be smuggled across the border from Mexico and showed a false green card, issued to foreigners with permission to live and work permanently in the U.S., to get his job. He said he lives in a concrete shelter the size of a tool shed, sharing the space with a cousin and not leaving at night for fear he’ll be deported.
Gunter said undocumented workers typically give false identification to get farm jobs, including social security numbers that go unverified.
"You always hear people say, ‘They’re taking our jobs,’" Gunter said of some Americans. "Anybody that would like to step up and come do those jobs, I bet we could find a job for them. Those jobs are available any time somebody wants one."
Area farms have coped with a labor shortage for several years, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau in Salinas, the county seat.
"Fewer people are coming from Mexico to work here because their economy has improved," Groot said. "It’s much more difficult and expensive to come across the border."
Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin, 49, said his department "almost never" checks people’s immigration status.
"We don’t ask the question of victims or suspects," McMillin said in an interview. "In this town, I’m concerned with youth violence, I’m concerned with gang violence, I’m concerned with domestic abuse, with major property crimes."
"I’m not concerned with someone who is here to work a very difficult job that -- I don’t care what anybody says -- is not being taken away from Americans, doing it for not a lot of money, living in difficult conditions and just want to put food on the table," he said. "My concern is that if those people are in my community, that they’re here safely and that they’re protected."
Undocumented workers are robbery targets because they don’t use banks and carry cash on payday. They typically don’t turn to the police for help out of fear of authority and being deported, McMillin said.
At an artichoke field in Castroville, near Salinas, about 35 workers mostly of Mexican origin arrive for work at dawn in a white school bus. Wearing straw hats, baseball caps, rubber boots, gloves and hoodies, they advance through the dirt rows between the plants, methodically slicing off and tossing the buds into red bins on their backs.
"The perception that agriculture jobs are manual and easy to perform is completely wrong," said Jorge Suarez, director of strategic planning and human resources at Ocean Mist Farms, a Castroville-based producer of artichokes, lettuce, broccoli and other vegetables, which employs the workers.
"These folks are experts at what they do," Suarez said in an interview. "They need speed, accuracy, understanding of production standards, and it requires the ability to execute with precision."
The workers load each red bin with about 80 artichokes and drop the 50-pound basket at a tractor before returning to the rows. Some carry radios playing music in Spanish. Each worker fills about 135 bins a day.
Ocean Mist employs about 1,200 to 1,500 field workers, all immigrants, mostly from Mexico, Suarez said.
"We comply with federal and state laws regarding the verification of employment," he said. "We look that they have the documents that they need to work and that’s the extent of our responsibility."
Suarez said his company has jobs available."In this valley alone, we’ve had shortages in the range of 20 to 50 percent in the last couple of years," he said. "We would like to see a law that allows for us in agriculture to have the ability to hire people -- those that are already here - - and have the ability to bring additional workers if needed from other countries."
Salinas has a history of employing immigrant field workers, as depicted by John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning author who was born there. His descriptions of life in the fields weren’t popular. Twice, his works which include "The Grapes of Wrath" were publicly burned in the city’s streets, according to the National Steinbeck Center there.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Filipinos were the most numerous farm workers, until they found jobs in the shipyards when World War II brought defense contracts to California. Mexicans filled the farm labor gap under the Bracero Program starting with the 1942 sugar-beet harvest.
Some of the Latinos replaced Japanese farm laborers who were sent to internment camps that year, according to the Steinbeck museum. Since then, the number of Hispanic field workers has steadily risen and they now hold almost all entry- level and supervisory farm jobs, according to the Steinbeck center.
Sylvia Perez, 49, who said she spent a summer picking celery on a Salinas farm at age 13, now enforces the city’s housing code. Undocumented workers rent space, often substandard and makeshift, wherever they can, she said.
At one stop, behind an ordinary house, she finds three mobile homes. Outside one is a stroller and a tricycle. A woman who doesn’t speak English answers the door. Two young boys take seats on the steps.
You can’t live here, Perez tells her in Spanish. It’s dangerous and it’s illegal. It’s meant for recreation and not living permanently, she says. Perez gives the woman a telephone number to call to learn more about her rights.
"It’s so hard," Perez said after closing the door to the mobile home, her voice cracking. Back at the car, she explained: "Because of the children."
At the next stop, the homeowner who answered the door admitted to renting out a shed behind his house for $150 a month to one person, and his garage to a couple for $550.
About 75 percent of the complaints her office receives involve undocumented workers, Perez said.
"They’re usually afraid we’re going to call immigration," Perez said. "We tell them we’re just making sure they’re living in good areas."
Jose Sanchez, 63, a Mexican-born farm worker and a U.S. citizen, has worked in the fields of Salinas for 46 years. As a young man, he cut lettuce side-by-side with his father.
"In the field, I like it because it’s the work my father taught me," Sanchez said in an interview in Spanish.
His hands and face are weathered from years of work outdoors. He cleans strawberries earning $8.50 an hour working nine hours a day, six days a week. He plans to retire in two years.
His children have seen how hard he works and found jobs elsewhere, including at a credit-card company, Sanchez said.
"They want nothing to do with the fields," he said.