There aren’t too many times of year on California’s farms that are busier than mid-May, and Terra Firma is no exception. There are so many different tasks that need doing here right now that just listing them all would take up most of the space in this newsletter. And despite years of trying to balance our labor needs and our farming practices, it’s impossible to get it exactly right.
There are always times of year when we have too much work for our year-round employees to get done in a timely fashion, and this is one of them. The reality of agriculture is that those tasks won’t wait. You can’t force a plant to do what you want it to, and you can’t stop it from growing when it wants. And on a farm, if you leave a job for later, it usually takes longer or causes lots of problems. Anyone who’s ever tended a lawn knows the truth of this. When we get to this point, we need more workers. And this year, like last year and the year before, it’s almost impossible to find more help.
So it is quite apropos that the Senate Committee charged with reforming our broken immigration system appears to have settled this week on an outline for legislation that will address some of the biggest problems — even though it remains deeply flawed in several important ways.
At least half the employees on farms in California — not just migrant workers — are undocumented aliens, mostly from Mexico. They are a critically important workforce with a broad range of skills no longer taught and experience no longer valued by the dominant culture of the United States. And yet they are at risk of jail time and deportation every day they drive to work.
When I first started working at Terra Firma in 1993, farmworkers tended to move freely between the U.S. and Mexico over the border, which was still fairly porous. Some would stay here for a year or two before heading home to Mexico for six months or a year. Others would show up regularly every spring and then leave again in the fall. With the money they earned here, they could support themselves and their families through an entire winter at home. This “system” allowed for a fairly predictable labor force for agriculture in California when it was needed the most.
All that changed with the stricter border enforcement of the Bush Administration after 9/11. Travelling from Mexico without documentation became dangerous and expensive. People decided it was too risky to go back and forth, so they ended up bringing their entire families here instead. One result of this demographic shift: the “dreamers”, children born in Mexico but raised here.
Since 2008, Homeland Security has greatly stepped up the detention and deportation of undocumented aliens. Border crossing has slowed to a trickle, despite what anti-immigration groups may claim. The result: a shortage of workers on farms at critical times of year. Times like right now. Agriculture has responded to the shortage by shifting tens of thousands of acres into highly mechanized crops, primarily nuts. But this has actually made the problem worse at certain times and in certain areas: farm workers have moved to where the work is more plentiful and steady. Translation: a shortage of workers at peak times of year in many areas.
I don’t have a solution to the farm labor dilemma, but it’s hard to imagine a situation more dysfunctional than our current immigration scheme with its emphasis on criminalizing hard working people doing an important job. And I am glad to see that our political leaders have managed to isolate the small minority of Americans who want the rest of us to believe that immigrants are hurting our country more than helping. They need to keep focused on this issue and keep the bill moving forward, despite the hurdles that remain.