From CBS47.tv. Alexandra Limon, 28 Apr 2011.
Illegal immigration in the Central Valley has been a heated topic for a long time.
Some claim these workers are doing the jobs many Americans won’t do, while others say they’re taking jobs away from Americans.
CBS4747’s Alexandra Limon spoke to both sides and spent the day in the fields to learn more about them and the work they do.
Jose is an undocumented immigrant who’s been living and working in the Central Valley for 16 years. Jose agreed to let us spend a day in his world.
His day can go from 4:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. This day was no exception. “I work four or five days, or on a good week seven days,” said Jose.
It’s springtime but the temperatures are just above freezing. The sun isn’t up yet and one after the other, a half dozen workers pile into a labor van. After an hour long drive, they arrive at the farm. It’s now daylight and they can begin their task for the day, which is to weed a vineyard.
The men say they came to the Valley illegally to make a living.
For US citizens around the country, their presence creates an ongoing national debate.
Michael Dermanuel Jr., Chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County said, “I don’t agree that people should be here illegally. But the reality is that they are here, and there’s not the will of the federal government to do anything about it.”
The US unemployment rate remained at 8.8% in March. Here in the Valley, the unemployment rate was above 18% in some counties.
Some ask if the jobs immigrant workers fill could be putting Americans to work. But those on the other side of the argument say immigrants actually help the local economy. Manuel Cunha, President of the Nisei Farmers League said, “These people are not taking US jobs… they are not. No one is going to do it.”
Cunha says Americans just aren’t willing to work the fields. It’s a bold claim but he says he can back it up. In 1998 a labor shortage hit the Valley’s farming industry. The government came up with a solution using the welfare to work program. “The purpose was to train people on all sorts of skills: tractor drivers, irrigators, packing houses,” said Cunha.
The plan was to create jobs for US citizens and get them off of welfare in 5 years. There were 80,000 vacant farm jobs and 137,000 people were trained to do them through the program. But in the end, there was a problem. “At the end of the day, 3 people went to work out of 137 thousand. Wine never got harvested, a lot of it rotted,” said Cunha.
Mike Dermanuel does not agree. “We pay people to not work. It’s called unemployment. So we really don’t know the answer to whether Americans will do those jobs,” said Dermanuel.
Both sides actually come close to agreeing on that one point. “Because the people do not want to do this type of work because it’s too hard, it’s too beneath them to get out and get dirt under their fingernails. They would rather have the check come from the government,” said Cunha.
Those who do work in fields, orchards and vineyards across the Valley say it is hard work
The workers Alexandra Limon talked with this day say it was one of the easier days. There aren’t many weeds to be pulled but still it’s a long and tiring day. Their feet ache after miles and miles of walking and their backs hurt after being bent over all day.
Jose’s feet have blisters and the work only gets harder once the heat comes, surpassing triple digits.
Mauricio, another farmworker says he is used to it. He’s been working in the Valley for 22 years. In that time, he says he’s never seen an American working out there.
In a more recent example of the lack of farm labor in California, Cunha says he worked with one grower who tried to hire US citizens just a couple years ago and after a series of immigration raids… “They hired 26 unemployment people… the second day they quit,” said Cunha.
So what would happen if Valley growers were no longer able to use immigrant labor? Is there a solution?
Dermanuel said, “Seal the border and to have a rational way for people to come in here legally…. and we don’t have that system.”
Dermanuel supports some sort of immigration reform and offers an idea that’s outside the box. “My solution has been to turn this over to private industry and have private industry devise, implement and execute a system to get people in and out of here,” said Dermanuel.
Though the heated immigration debate circles around Jose and could potentially impact him and his family, he tells CBS47 he feels lucky because he’s able to support his wife and 3 kids who were all born in the United States.
Source adnd view video report at: CBS47.tv. “CBS47 Special Report: Illegals Working in America” by Alexandra Limon, 28 Apr 2011.