The specter of peaches and oranges and apricots and artichokes rotting on the ground or on trees hangs over California agriculture this spring, in the wake of a series of immigration raids during the first months of President Trump’s administration.
If you want to know why it’s not merely undocumented immigrants who fear the prospect of more and larger raids – the first set of them in February saw federal agents net about 600 persons in this country illegally nationwide and a reported 109 in California – it helps to look back to the early 2000s. There is no accurate count of how many have been rounded up since.
Illegal immigration, of course, was already a hot political topic 15 years ago, in the wake of the 1997 Proposition 187, which sought to bar the undocumented and their children from public schools and health clinics and almost all other public services in California. Most of 187’s provisions were thrown out by federal judges within a year of its passage, but the memory of the 65 percent “yes” vote on the measure was still vivid.
So Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then in her second full term, decided to check how much of the unemployment problem, then and now serious in both California and the entire nation, could be chalked up to the undocumented taking jobs from U.S. citizens who wanted them.
She arranged for every office of the state Employment Development Department to list menial, farm-related jobs like strawberry picking that were actually available at the time. Absolutely none of the many thousands of citizens then drawing unemployment benefits in California bit on those jobs, even though everyone on unemployment must report job-seeking efforts in order to get a check.
The reasonable conclusion from this experiment – which has not since been repeated anywhere – was that unemployed U.S. citizens were not interested in the kind of low-paid, seasonal and physically demanding jobs that often attract illegal immigrants to California and other parts of America. That’s one big reason for this estimate from the American Farm Bureau Federation: Between 50 percent and 70 percent of all farm workers in this country are here illegally.
The fear of farmers in the Central Valley, who turned out in big numbers for Trump’s single fund-raising dinner in California last fall, is that nothing much has changed over the last 15 years in the way American citizens view these jobs, even if the minimum wage is now a lot higher than before.
California farmers clearly hope immigration raids that so far have targeted some textile workshops, other non-farm businesses and have masqueraded at times as “gang sweeps,” stay far away from their fields.
Farmers here saw what happened in the weeks between Alabama’s adoption in 2011 of the nation’s harshest-ever anti-illegal immigrant law and when it was largely struck down by courts. That law required police to check the immigration status of all suspects and turn illegals over to federal authorities. For awhile, school officials had to demand birth certificates from new pupils. The undocumented still cannot conduct business of any kind with state or local government there, other than paying state sales and gasoline taxes.
After the Alabama law passed, many employers reported massive absenteeism, droves of illegals staying home from work for fear of immigration raids. Tomato farms reported fewer than half their workers showed up the next week and chicken farmers said many of their employees flew the coop. The same for plant nurseries, building contractors and more. Prices for tomatoes and other produce rose quickly up and down the East Coast.
This lasted months before state officials tacitly relented and many workers returned. But almost no U.S. citizens applied for the vacant jobs.
One California farmer fearing Trump-ordered raids told the New York Times that “If you have only legal labor, certain parts of this industry would not exist. If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”
It’s not that the undocumented workers are low-paid, either. That same farmer said many of his undocumented employees have worked for him more than a decade and now make upwards of $11 per hour, above the current minimum wage.
All of which explains why farmers fear stricter immigration enforcement almost as much as their workers.