From an article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, “The Valley of Fear:”
California’s San Joaquin Valley, from Stockton in the north to Arvin in the south, is 234 miles long and 130 miles wide. If you drive there from the Bay Area, in less than an hour the temperature will go from 57 to 97 degrees.
Measured by yearly production, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the highest-value stretches of farmland in the country, and is dominated by large growers who preside over a labor force of migrant workers in a way that has not changed much since Carey McWilliams described it in his 1939 book, Factories in the Fields. Arax likens it to a Central American country. “It’s the poorest part of California,” he told me. “There’s almost no middle class. To find its equivalent in the United States you’d have to go to Appalachia or the borderlands of Texas.”
Raisins, table grapes, pistachios, almonds, tomatoes, stone fruits, garlic, and cabbage are some of the crops of the Valley.
Today, at least 80 percent of farmworkers are undocumented Mexicans, the majority of them Mixteco and Trique, indigenous people from the states of Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Guerrero—the poorest regions in Mexico—who speak no or very little Spanish, much less English. Most of them have been working the fields for at least a decade, have established families here, and live in terror of la migra, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is called, and instant deportation or imprisonment that would wrench them from their children.
Tomato picking is “stoop labor,” the most wearying and painful kind. But the Oaxacans went at it with dizzying speed. The pay was 73 cents for every five-gallon bucket they could fill, which workers prefer to the alternative of $11 per hour….In five hours, a skilled picker could earn between $75 and $85.
In response to the argument that immigrants steal jobs from Americans by undercutting their wages, the [United Farm Workers] set up a website offering citizens and legal residents agricultural jobs anywhere in the country through state employment services. This was in 2010, during the Great Recession. The website received about four million hits, out of which around 12,000 people filled out employment forms. Of these, a total of twelve citizens or legal residents actually showed up for work. Not one of them lasted longer than a day.
Fruit and vegetable picking is a one-generation job—farmworkers I spoke to neither wanted nor would allow their children to follow them into the fields. The heat and physical toll, combined with the feudal power of the growers, make it preferable to work in an air-conditioned hotel or packing house, where you can stand upright and be free of pesticides for the same low wages.
This means that a constant supply of impoverished Mexican immigrants willing to do the work is required. But those immigrants aren’t coming.
At UFW headquarters in downtown Fresno, I met with a group of twelve pro-bono legal advisers to immigrants from every major city in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. They all told me that they were inundated with a virtually endless stream of terrified workers panicked about their future.
Every immigrant arrested there ends up at Mesa Verde, a privately owned prison in Bakersfield where, because of immigrants’ lack of support and poverty, it is almost impossible to retain legal representation. This is where Hernandez and the legal advisers step in, “a drop in the ocean,” she says. Detainees “attend” their hearing at the prison via video feed to a courtroom in Sacramento, 286 miles away. Judgments are rendered in a matter of minutes.
Hernandez coached parents to prepare their children for the worst. One topic of conversation was: What Happens If Your Parents Don’t Come Home Today. People were insecure before, but they more or less had the sense that their labor was needed, that they were valued for, if nothing else, their willingness to do work no one else wanted. Their kids could go to school and live, for the most part, without the fear of their parents disappearing, even under Obama’s aggressive deportation policies. Now, even people with temporary legal status won’t apply for food stamps, unemployment