SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 2, 2013

Watson: Immigrant farm workers help the economy

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Last month I spent a week in California and toured some of the large agricultural areas in the state’s northern central region along the Pacific coast.

I visited the sprawling croplands from Watsonville down to the Santa Maria area. On those dry plains, with the mountains forming a continuous backdrop, crops of strawberries, blackberries, artichokes, lettuce, celery, grapes, and others extended for miles and miles. To an urban easterner like me, the sheer scale of the agriculture makes an impression.

To stand at the edge of a massive field and take in all that goes into the soil preparation, irrigation layout, planting procedures, weeding protocols, and finally, harvesting, is to gain an appreciation for the enormous quantities of labor and risk that attend crop production.

The central farming valleys that I visited had not received significant rainfall in nearly two years, and when speaking with locals, it was never long into the conversation before they would – unprompted – offer up that fact.

But the irrigation systems that get laid under most of the crops are extensive and effective. Miles of feeder pipes and miles of rows of slow-drip plastic sheets distribute water. The surface sheets are picked up and put down anew with each crop, but special tractors crawling slowly through the fields do this work.

What’s really impressive though, are the farmworkers themselves. Across the central valley, it takes thousands of laborers to hand-pick many of the crops, and the work is physically demanding, repetitive, and often severely hot. The quantity of fruits and vegetables that get manually picked and boxed in a day is mind-boggling.

All of the field workers I observed were Latino. Working conditions in the fields, and the housing that workers live in, are far better than those in Florida, where I have also visited the large, Latino farmworker community. Not a lot of non-Latinos pick crops in either Florida or California. The pay is too low.

The long growing season in California – and the types of crops grown – combine to permit farmworkers to stay year-round in the state. In Florida, where tomatoes and oranges are grown in a shorter season, the workers don’t as often create permanent homes, instead migrating northward with differing crop seasons.

Consequently, in California, I saw a lot of modest but satisfactory housing neighborhoods where farmworker residents have become an integral part of the life and commerce of the communities. They may be third- or fourth-generation Californians and their children are attending the local schools. Unlike Florida, where transient, single young men without cars are bused en masse to the fields, a larger percentage of California’s central valley farmworkers are married, have families and cars, and are committed economically to the nation.

California’s total population is 38 million, of which about 39 percent (14 million) are Latino. There are an estimated 2.8 million undocumented immigrants in the state, and a large number of those are farmworkers. A similar situation exists in Florida, where undocumented workers make up at least half of the migrant pickers.

Spend time in either Florida’s or California’s agricultural regions and what is driven home to you is the extent to which Latino immigrants – both citizens and undocumented – play a critical, constructive role in our nation’s economy. Like so many different immigrant groups before them, they are an asset to the nation.

For that reason, and many others, immigration reform is overdue. We are spending inordinate time, energy, money, and resources monitoring, chasing, prosecuting, or deporting people who for the most part demonstrate motivation, respect for the law, and a work ethic. Our current immigration enforcement policies divide the nation and create incredible pain in the lives of immigrant families. We currently deport 400,000 people a year.

The Senate has already passed legislation that would create a 13-year path to citizenship for those here illegally. They would have to pay an assortment of fees, fines, and taxes, and fulfill certain requirements. The path would not be fast or easy.

The proposed bill also includes $46 billion for additional border security measures, including the construction of 350 miles more of border fencing and the hiring of about 19,000 more border patrol officers. It expands the numbers of visas for people with degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math. (The Immigration Policy Center has full legislative details.)

When the House takes up this issue, it is my hope that Congress will pass the proposed reforms but reduce the amount to be spent on additional fencing and new guards. We already have an incredibly militarized border zone, which is actually quite effective. That some number of immigrants still manage to get through the gauntlet is more a testament of their desperation and determination than our border weakness.

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Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at btwatson20@gmail.com.