In Calif. Town, Prison May Fix One Employment Problem, But Create Another

May 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The small California farm town of Mendota is struggling to diversify its economy, which revolves around seasonal agricultural work that creates times of very high unemployment. University of California, Berkeley student Alissa Figueroa reports on one solution that could also create a big problem for farms and their workers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, another in our occasional reports from journalism students around the country.

It comes from Alissa Figueroa at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Journalism.

Her story is about a California town wrestling with solutions to high unemployment.

ALISSA FIGUEROA, University of California, Berkeley: Mendota is a dusty, ragged city of 10,000 people in California’s Central Valley. But it’s surrounded by some of America’s richest farmland.

Almost everyone here works in agriculture and most are Latino immigrants. Joe Del Bosque runs a 2,400-acre cantaloupe farm near Mendota. Even with unemployment in California at 12 percent, he says that only Latino immigrants come to him looking for work in the fields.

JOSEPH DEL BOSQUE, farmer: Any fresh fruit and vegetable has to be picked by hand. We have immigrants that are willing to do it. And we should be thankful that we do. In this valley, there’s a huge demand for labor. We don’t have enough people here in the valley to harvest those crops by hand. And people don’t come from the cities on the coast inland to pick our crops.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: Del Bosque says he only hires workers who can provide Social Security numbers. But more than half the farm labor in California’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry is performed by illegal immigrants. So there’s a good chance that many of his workers are undocumented.

They’re willing to do this labor, which is low-paying and seasonal. Most people in Mendota, regardless of their immigration status, are jobless for part of the year. This is largely because agriculture is so unstable. Unemployment in the city reached 40 percent last year.

Mendota’s leaders, headed by Mayor Robert Silva, have spent years trying to diversify the local economy.

ROBERT SILVA, mayor of Mendota, Calif.: 93 percent of the jobs here in Mendota are farm-related. So, we wanted to get away from that. And that’s why we have managed to do a lot of different things the last couple of years.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: The city council went after a multimillion-dollar federal prison.

ROBERT SILVA: This mayor out of Delano, they had a prison there, and he was telling me, oh, Robert, there’s a lot of good things that come out of the prison.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: Like jobs. The new prison is scheduled to open later this year. Guards there will earn twice the average salary in Mendota. But few of them will be from town. Hardly anyone here qualifies for the federal prison jobs. They require a college degree and good credit.

JOSEPH RIOFRIO, Mendota City Council: I would say, when that place is built, if we have five people from this community working there, that’s going to be like, wow.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: But last fall, another economic opportunity came up.

NARRATOR: CCA takes great pride in providing a safe, secure and positive environment, both…

ALISSA FIGUEROA: Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, is the biggest private prison company in the country. CCA approached the city about building another prison in Mendota. They already own this land within the city’s limits. And they have promised to hire locals.

CCA’s contract with the city says that 80 percent of the new prison staff will come from the surrounding community. It seemed like a golden opportunity, except for one thing.

JOSEPH RIOFRIO: They’re negotiating with I think the feds, building a facility there, what is going to be an immigration type of prison.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: A detention center for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency that arrests and deports illegal immigrants.

JOSEPH RIOFRIO: That’s not going to fly good in this community, because that was the number-one thing that people would ask me. (SPEAKING SPANISH) Is ICE going to be here? Is La Migra going to be here?

No, no, no, no, no.

I don’t know. And, if that happens, if they start with that here in this town, which 40 percent, at times, that there are so many undocumented people here, it’s not going to be a popular thing.

WOMAN (through translator): People will leave.

MAN (through translator): People will leave.

WOMAN (through translator): They will have to leave.

MAN (through translator): They will have to leave.

WOMAN (through translator): People are scared.

MAN (through translator): People are scared.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: They’re scared because ICE launched a series of raids in this county four years ago and arrested about 150 people.

The raid caused an uproar. Mendota’s City Council condemned it, and there hasn’t been another one in the city since. The illegal immigrants who avoided arrest went back to work in the fields.

MAN (through translator): The people who have their papers don’t go into this work. It’s the undocumented people who are willing to do it. So if they have that they will lose everybody. All the vans that go to work at 5:00 a.m., if they check them they will take everyone. And if there’s fruit to be picked there it will stay.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: Not all Californians agree. Rick Oltman has spent the last two decades on the front lines of the battle against illegal immigration.

RICK OLTMAN, minuteman: If a reasonable wage is paid, you will have Americans doing these jobs. It isn’t true that illegal aliens take jobs that Americans won’t do. There are no jobs that people won’t do. There’s only wages that people won’t accept.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: ICE has not formally approved the detention center yet. The agency declined to comment on plans for the site. But if built the center in Mendota would help house the growing number of immigrants awaiting deportation hearings, prisoners who are now held in county jails, like this one in Richmond, Calif.

RICK OLTMAN: It probably would lead to more enforcement, because there will be people asking, well we have this facility that we have paid for, and half the beds aren’t filled. How come you’re not enforcing the law more?

ALISSA FIGUEROA: Mendota’s leaders are focused on the 300 jobs they say the detention center would bring, not the potential for more ICE raids.

Even Councilman Joseph Riofrio supports the new facility.

JOSEPH RIOFRIO: You know, if we don’t, someone else will. Other communities line up for them. But people need to work here.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: The Mendota City Council traveled to Washington, D.C., in March to lobby the Department of Homeland Security for the ICE detention center. CCA sent executives as well. Because the recession put many federal and state prison projects on hold, immigration detention is now one of the company’s biggest growth areas.

Mayor Robert Silva doesn’t see any losers in the deal. He says that even the town’s undocumented workers won’t have to fear ICE if the detention center is built.

ROBERT SILVA: The feds look the other way, because nobody is going to be doing this labor work, OK, nobody else. That’s why a lot of undocumented workers come to California. And it’s been going on since the ’40s. It’s not going to stop. So I don’t believe that the United States is really going to go down and crush this area because it has — just because the facility is there. I don’t believe it.

ALISSA FIGUEROA: Meanwhile, Mendota’s illegal immigrants continue to live and work, hidden in plain sight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yesterday a hiring freeze at the federal prison was lifted and job applications are now being accepted. No contract has been signed yet for the detention facility.