From FresnoBee.com, Heather Somerville, The Fresno Bee, 16 Feb 2012.
Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan’s visit to Fresno on Thursday — a first by Mexico’s top representative in the U.S. — underscored the robust relationship between Mexico and the Valley and highlighted concerns about protecting the region’s agriculture industry from anti-immigrant legislation.
Sarukhan spent the day in conversations with farmers and in meetings with Mexican community leaders — an agenda that he said would bring attention to the “marriage between Mexican laborers and entrepreneurs” in the U.S. and rally support for immigration reform.
His visit was also a nod to the growing strength of Fresno’s Mexican Consulate, which in the past few years has taken the lead in promoting better education and health care for the Mexican-American community, and has become a go-to resource for immigrants with legal needs and personal crises. Forty-two percent of Fresno’s population is of Mexican origin, consulate officials said.
Sarukhan started his day in a muddy citrus orchard in Sanger — a markedly different setting from his dinner the previous night with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Fowler Packing, a family-owned, 9,000-acre farm, employs about 1,000 workers, some of whom are Mexican immigrants.
Sarukhan has pushed to improve trade between the two nations, and he said the relationship is “very healthy” — Mexico is the second-largest buyer of U.S. exports.
Some of the greatest trade potential is in agriculture. Sarukhan said Mexico and the U.S. have different off-seasons for growing produce and aren’t in competition, and the agriculture-rich Central Valley is a critical part of the two nations’ cooperative relationship. He said Fowler Packing is an example of how the countries depend on each other to keep businesses thriving.
Walking through the orange grove, Sarukhan paused to speak with Manuel, 58, who said he had been with the company since 1974 — the year he came to California. He said his wife also worked for Fowler Packing, and together they have nine children. Their paychecks are the backbone of their family’s survival.
Officials at the site asked to identify workers only by their first names, saying the precaution was only for their privacy. There was no discussion about the workers’ legal status.
Without Manuel and other immigrant laborers, Fowler Packing — which grows tree fruit and table grapes — could not operate, said Ken Parnagian, who co-owns the farm with his three brothers.
“We need the Mexican people here,” Parnagian said. “We’d be out of business without them.”
Parnagian said Fowler Packing has retained a loyal — albeit shrinking — labor force. Many of the workers who harvested mandarins Thursday morning said Fowler Packing had been their home for years, and they didn’t plan to look elsewhere for a job. The work is steady — there is fruit to pick nearly year-round — and the Parnagians pay better than some other farms. Farm manager Grant Parnagian said workers earn minimum wage or a per-piece rate for their harvest.
But the recession, tough immigration laws and spreading violence from transnational crime have deterred Mexicans from immigrating, Sarukhan said. And fewer immigrants has meant a shrinking labor force for farm owners.
Between unloading bags of oranges, 36-year-old Augustin said he has seen “many fewer” immigrants come looking for a job; he blames tough immigration laws. Augustin said he’s worked at the farm for 12 years and supports a wife and children back in Mexico.
Sarukhan is at the forefront of promoting a comprehensive immigration reform agenda with the U.S. His plan — which calls for reform on both sides of the border — includes a temporary worker program in the U.S. and a system to legally identify the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Immigration reform “is really an economic imperative to the well-being and future of both our countries,” Sarukhan said.
The ambassador said he plans to tap Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, for support. “They fully understand” the importance of reform, Sarukhan said.
But he said comprehensive immigration reform won’t be possible with the current Congress and during a presidential election year.
Sarukhan is concerned that anti-immigrant sentiments in some states could hurt the immigrant labor force everywhere. The ambassador called Alabama’s far-reaching immigration legislation a “self-inflicted wound.” The law, which requires police to determine citizenship status during traffic stops and government offices to verify legal residency for everyday transactions, drove immigrant agriculture workers out of the state, leaving farms without a work force to harvest the crops.
Valley farmers also voiced concern Thursday about E-Verify, an Internet-based system that companies use to confirm that an employee or job applicant is legally authorized to work in the U.S.
Sarukhan is more optimistic about a number of efforts rolled out at the Mexican Consulate that are aimed at empowering the Mexican community, which lags in health care access and education. The consulate hosts a number of health clinics and is working on programs to address the high dropout rate of Hispanic students. Recently, the San Joaquin College of Law opened a free legal clinic at the consulate.
Sarukhan said Mexico’s health care reform, anticipated this spring or summer, will also help struggling Valley immigrants. The country is preparing to extend universal health coverage to all citizens — including those living in the U.S. He said Mexicans living abroad and their families will get health care through the Mexican government, which will improve the quality of life for many Valley immigrants.
As Mexico’s economy and social services strengthen and the country continues its steady rise to a middle-income nation, Sarukhan said, more Mexicans may be encouraged to stay in their country rather than immigrate north. That could put the future of many Valley farms in jeopardy.
A career diplomat with Armenian roots, Sarukhan, 48, said he was a teenager when he first visited Fresno, where he has relatives in the city’s sizable Armenian community. He became ambassador to the U.S. in 2007.