California: The Immigration Dilemma
Hard times stir up the issue in Central Valley
BY Jason Margolis
September 10, 2009
Jason Margolis is a reporter with the public radio program, The World, where he focuses on economic issues. Previously, he reported for KQED Public Radio in Sacramento, The Seattle Times and MarketWatch. Loren Mendell is a documentary filmmaker whose most recent work "Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene" premiered on PBS/Independent Lens and won their 2009 Audience Award. He also previously produced the films "Cockfight" (PBS), "Change Up" (Discovery), "One Strong Arm" (A&E Indie), and the San Quentin prison feature "Bad Boys of Summer."
Forty years ago, Edward R. Murrow produced the television documentary "Harvest of Shame," which showed the plight of migrant farm workers in the United States. Americans were shocked at the working and living conditions. In Murrow's film, one farmer says, "We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them."
Tremendous progress has been made since then. Farm workers can unionize. They receive overtime. They have bathrooms in the fields. And with a few exceptions, legal rights apply to everyone. Once an employer hires somebody -- whether they are here legally or not -- the law is the law. But the reality is that many employers take advantage of undocumented workers.
"They (undocumented workers) are afraid to speak up, because they are afraid that if they do, somebody will get them deported," Dolores Huerta told me. Huerta worked with César Chávez in the 1960s to help unionize farm workers.
I wanted to find out how the economic downturn was affecting undocumented farm workers and the farms where they work. There's no better place to investigate than California, where perhaps one-quarter of the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live. I spent a week traveling through the San Joaquin Valley -- the agricultural epicenter of California -- to better understand the complexities of the situation.
For immigrant workers, jobs are scarce, living conditions are difficult, and there is a constant fear of being deported.
Not surprisingly, times are tough for undocumented workers. Wages are low, living conditions remain difficult, and there is a lingering fear of deportation. During the recession, some farm workers told me they are getting less hours. But most still have jobs. After all, farming is about as recession-proof an industry as you can get. "People always have to eat," a farmer succinctly told me.
Still, you might think that as unemployment creeps higher and higher, more Americans would start applying for farm jobs. Not so. Every farmer I met said they can't hire Americans. Why not? It's backbreaking work for low pay.
Free market enthusiasts argue that higher wages will attract American workers. But there's a problem with that. As one farmer said to me, "Why don't they (farm workers) get paid an awful lot of money? Because the American consumer wants cheap food."
I did meet many farmers who treated their workers fairly, with decent wages and even retirement packages. Most of them remain economically dependent on immigrant labor.
"I want people to be able to come to this country, and I want them to be able to be here legally ... because we need the workers very definitely," farmer Robin Butterfield told me. "It's better for them. It's better for us."
Many of the undocumented farm workers I spoke with seemed content with their situations. They told me that life is much better in California than back home in places like Mexico or Guatemala.
But when I visited small rural communities like Tooleville -- a two-street town with dirt roads, no sidewalks, and no clean drinking water -- I couldn't help but think of Murrow's film. Tooleville didn't feel all that removed from some poor villages I've seen in parts of the developing world in Asia and Latin America.
Murrow ended his documentary by saying: "The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation."
A half-century later, that observation seems even more appropriate, as the immigration debate drones on summer after summer with little political resolve to find a solution.
-- Jason Margolis
Comments for this page are closed.
I volunteered with the UFW for three decades. These are not undocumented workers, they are illegal aliens. They should be sent home with three months pay by the employers who misuse them. The laws that allow children born to one or two illegal aliens must be changed so that they are not classified as natural citizens.
These people, the poor workers and the farmers who hire them are in collusion to commit fraud for their own benefit not for the benefit of the country's legal citizens.
If wages must be raised, good. I don't mind spending another 5% for food knowing that people who are here legally and who work hard are benefiting from a living wage. It's fair, it's just, it's rational.
Enrique Vega - Sherman Oaks, CA
I have two observations to make regarding this discussion: migrant/undocumented workers have been in the U.S. since the beginning of this nation. Over 200 years of a virtually open border cannot be changed without negative consequences. No wall or barrier has EVER deterred or contained the human spirit or the dream of a better life.In 2007, the Giovanni Peri authored a study which measured the effects of immigrants on employment and wages in California. This massive, longitudinal study concluded that the net effect of immigration on employment and earnings for Californians is positive. The report can be obtained from the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-profit, non-partisan organization. People have little to no understanding of the economic determinants that create undocumented workers to come to the U.S., but the reality is that since the beginning of this great country, this has always been NEEDED, although not always welcomed.Finally, immigration, like same sex marriage and abortion, is a wedge issue usually brought up by republicans to energize their base. It is a shameless ploy, but one which does not fail to materialize every election cycle. It bespeaks more of the lack of a REAL platform to help Americans with their day to day lives. It also betrays ignorance and intellectual dishonesty, as all claims of imminent threat to national security, crime and criminality and economic damages have all been proven to be patently false.Immigration is not an issue, or rather, it has been here since the beginning of this nation, and it will continue to be here for as long as the U.S. exists.
Arek - Warsaw, Poland
I would like to express my admiration for the 22-year-old woman who appears at the end of the piece. First, scared, she lies to the reporter about her background as she knows the law is against her. Then, she decides to tell the truth as she seems to understand the reason of the protest. People who live and work in the U.S. do not want to be forced by the law to lie and pretend to be rightful citizens. They know they are rightful citizens, or, as the woman in the film, have always been such.
GUSTAVO CONTRERAS - LYNWOOD, CA
we need more investigating into this!!
Margaret H. - Manassas, VA
This series interviews many illegal immigrants who live in California. It illustrates what little progress has been made in the forty years since Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta worked so hard to push for rights of farm workers. But the circumstances of the farm workers that Chavez and Huerta fought for in the 1960s and those introduced in this video are incomparable. Chavez's organization, the National Farm Workers Association (later changed to United Farm Workers), sought fair treatment for those immigrants who came to the United States legally. Chavez was adamantly opposed to illegal immigration and supported immigration restrictions for legal immigrants. He felt that open immigration policies harmed U.S. workers and exploited migrant workers.Margolis presents information regarding the mistreatment of illegal immigrants: their wages are still low, living conditions are difficult, they fear deportation if they complain to authorities. But in the United States, all workers have rights =96 even those who are living in this country illegally. These workers are afraid to ask for those rights because they know they have broken the law to come to this country. Immigration reform has been a polarizing topic that has met massive resistance from the American public and Congress, regardless of which party is in power at the White House. Our country has not taken any meaningful steps to address our porous borders or to deal with the 12 million plus illegal immigrants that already live here. To gain control of the situation, the United States must close its borders to immigrants until an effective, pragmatic plan can be put into place, and we must crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants that are here because they are avoiding justice in their country of origin should be returned to their country immediately. Those that are here for economic opportunities or are political refugees should receive amnesty and be expedited through the process of obtaining legal status. Allowing these people the opportunity to stop living in the shadows will help move our country forward in many ways: it will increase wages for all workers since undocumented workers will no longer be able to undercut the pay legal immigrants and US workers receive; it will give a huge percentage of our population the motivation to be contributing members of our society and to become an important part of American culture; it will reinforce the ideals that make this country great.
Excellent piece. These are people we are dealing with, they are not nameless labor.
B L - 209, CA
As anonymous notes the reporter did seem a little timid about addressing the subject of undocumented immigrants. The reality is that most (if any) legal citizens will not perform these jobs. They have become immigrant jobs that hold a certain stigma. Furthermore they are extremely physically grueling. Add NAFTA, low food prices, etc. into the equation and there is no room for increased wages to attract documented citizens. Sorry to say it but reform from Obama is a long way off...the conversation about immigration at the Hill has all but dried up, just like the fields in Central CALI!!! thanks for the report.
SP - Los Angeles, CA
It's great to see such a lively discussion!
Here are my two cents:To anyone using the "they should go through the system before getting the same benefits" argument - please do your research, or at the very least, ask
yourself if anyone with the ability to become a naturalized citizen would
say, "no thanks, it's too much paperwork."
The fact is that as the law stands now, Mexican nationals are not allowed to apply for citizenship. As my lawyer put it, "If you were from Europe, or at least Cuba or Nicaragua, you would have a shot at applying for citizenship."Until the law changes, I will continue to work and pay taxes with my government-issued TIN number. Look it up if you don't know.
Americans First - Los Angeles, California
American Jobs first. No more water for farms until they leave. Get the hell out of my Country. Send the farmers to prison for hiring these people.
San Bernardino, California
I majored in Spanish with an emphasis in Cross-cultural studies. After 4 years of college and a semester living in Mexico I was shocked to find out that one of the main reasons why 60% of Mexico's population is living at or under the poverty line is due to NAFTA. The USA can sell cheap products in Mexico which puts small businesses, especially farmers out of work. What I found when visiting small towns was that these towns used to be full of farmers but they all left to work in the USA because they could not compete with the prices of imported crops.These farmers cannot sell their products cheaper. What the USA is doing is subsidizing farmers so that they can sell their produce under-priced. Sadly this subsidizing has been detrimental for small farms in the USA as well.
Large corporation farms are the ones benefiting from the subsidizing and from NAFTA. The greed of a few large produce companies who were able to lobby their causes to politicians has destroyed many American and Mexican families.=0D
You could tell the reporter hasn't reported on immigration issues in California before, much less anywhere. He seemed to be frightened to death to ask the farmers something that everyone talks about with ease in the central valley: that their workers are illegal immigrants. Big deal. Welcome to California! He spent half the report seemingly surprised that
he actually found a group of illegal immigrants. "Gosh! I found them!" The
reporter didn't even speak Spanish. I'm a little disappointed that Frontline commissioned this story. I watch Frontline for more in-depth reporting by reporters who know what they're doing. This guy seemed like he parachuted
into the Central Valley and did absolutely no homework prior to reporting
it. I was pretty disappointed with the entire report, and as a Californian,
I expect more from Frontline. You do a disservice to both migrant workers
who are trying to make a living here and to the farmers who are doing their best to make their living, too, by airing such a simplistic report on a very nuanced and complicated issue that has many facets to it.
Marco Antonio - los angeles, ca
The reason people from Mexico and from this side of the globe come illegally is because its way cheaper to pay someone a few thousands than to pay fees and tickets to come from across the pond. I've been here
since I was 6 and now I am 23, I need two more years of school to get my b .science but its tough with my salary. citizens need loans, grants, scholarships, and good paying jobs to get through university, can you imagine my plight?
Jeff - South San Francisco, CA
I support legal workers in America. It's true that most Americans will not work as farmers and Latino/Hispanics will. I think we need them here. But, prior to them going here, they need to pay the price and paperwork for them to go here. I for one, came from the Philippines and I had to do all necessary paperwork to get to America legally. It's not fair to just cross the border illegally and get the same benefits of those that got here legally.
Deport all illegals. Hire Americans. Raise the wages.
When the economy suffers, the poor are always the ones to suffer most. If these people were to be rounded up and all shipped away at once, California would be brought to it's knees and USA food supplies would shink to where lettuce and tomatoes and oranges would be a luxury that few Americans could afford and Canadians would never see again.
this is the real reason for the recession
Susan Brooks - San Diego, CA
Good show about a definite concern in California. I support the immigrants who come here to work and hope they will be able to become citizens of this country. As the granddaughter and daughter of naturalized citizens, I appreciate the many opportunities we have in the United States. I would not wish to deny these opportunities to others.
Linda Lanier - Hillsborough, CA
Robert Stanley - W. hollywood, CA
Powerful piece, and beautifully shot.
Very Informative. We need to be reminded that people need people. The problems must be answered and soon.
Rafael Cervera - Merida, Yucatan
A good piece of reporting. Thank you for highlighting the plight of illegal aliens in the USA. I feel that the Mr. Margolis could have been better prepared so as not to ask the same old questions, making this an Illegal Immigrant 101 story. This would have led him to ask why some emigrants want to stay. Because this is the key question for the anti immigration activist. Not the drain on taxpayer services which is their banner, but if the aliens are gonna stay. And lets face it, everybody knows that the Mexicans have as much right as anyone to be there because of the shady way those territories were acquired. This is the secret fear of American Anti Immigration zealots. The name "migrant worker" should tell you something. Almost all Mexicans love their homeland and want nothing more than to live out their days in their childhood surroundings. But some fall in love with the USA, the land of decency and bounty. These are you're best ambassadors for democracy south of the border. These are the people who come back and ask questions and demand answers from their governments. These are the people who through time have given their lives in America's past military conflicts for an ideal -- that is the USA. These are the people the ugly American is trying to banish.
Provides timely insights into the ongoing immigration debate through the voices of those most directly affected. I am a professor, and I am using this in my geography course tomorrow. Thank you, FW/Rough Cut!!