Lou de Holczer, Bill McKibben, Andrew Ratzkin, Arlie Russell Hochschild, Albion M. Urdank, Christopher R. Browning, and Mark Haworth-Booth
The shrine told the story of Rufina’s parents’ lives: flowers, a can of Arizona iced tea, a pink vase, a cross affixed with a statue of Guadalupe, a bottle of hot sauce, an old automobile headlight, a pot of black soil, a can of Tecate beer. Rufina pointed out a votive candle that someone had placed there since her last visit. It seemed to comfort her. She believed in the invisible presence of the dead. She told me that eggshells scattered on the ground were dropped there by people worried that “what happened to my parents will happen to them.” In a stern voice, as if to make sure there were no misunderstandings, she added, “They said it was my parents’ fault because they got scared and drove away. But it wasn’t their fault, they were just going to work.” An ICE spokesman blamed the deaths on California’s sanctuary laws, which “have pushed ICE out of jails [and] force our officers to conduct enforcement in the community—which posed increased risks for law enforcement and the public. It also increases the likelihood that ICE will encounter other illegal aliens who previously weren’t on our radar.”
ICE crackdown is only one aspect of a plan to deport all undocumented Mexicans who occupy the lowest rungs of the labor market and to eliminate completely new immigration from south of the border. A movement is underway in Congress to replace these laborers with a vast new “guest worker” program. Under the current guest-worker law, which is intended to address emergency labor shortages, guest workers are expensive: employers must pay for their travel from and back to their country of origin and provide housing during the term of their contract, which cannot exceed one year. The law is designed to discourage businesses from engineering a labor surplus by importing unlimited numbers of Mexicans and undercutting workers who already live in the US, as growers did under the Bracero Program (whose name comes from the Spanish word for manual laborer) from 1942 to 1964, in response to the agricultural labor shortage during World War II.
A bill sponsored by Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia seeks to weaken—and in some instances abolish—employer requirements, such as mandatory housing and transportation, in order to create a vast pool of two million or more regulated guest workers. Passage of the bill, its sponsors believe, will make it economically feasible to do away with hiring undocumented workers from Mexico and to deport virtually every one of them already living in the US.
Under the Goodlatte bill, guest workers could be hired for up to three years and would be paid the minimum wage in the state they are brought to— $7.25 in Texas, $8.25 in Florida, $10 in Arizona, $11 in California, all states that use a substantial number of farmworkers. Crucially, they would not be allowed to bring their spouses or children. And they could only work for the contractor who hired them. If they experienced wage theft or maltreatment on the job, they would have no recourse to seek justice or find work elsewhere. If fired, they would be immediately deported, at their own expense. If they fled, they would be hunted as outlaws. At least 10 percent of their wages would be withheld until the contract expired, to make sure that they left the country. I asked Arturo Rodriguez (since retired as UFW president) if such conditions would attract significant numbers of workers. He assured me that they would: “Farmworkers in the south of Mexico make the equivalent of between $10 and $13 dollars a day, so it’s worth it to them to come here, even with the restrictions. As it is, they have to bribe recruiters in order to be chosen for guest work.”
The Goodlatte bill was defeated in Congress earlier this year. But a revised version has the support of 203 Congress members, only fifteen votes short of the number needed for passage. Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents part of the San Joaquin Valley, have indicated their desire to bring it to a vote again before the new Congress is sworn in in January. Nationwide, two hundred agricultural groups back the bill, including the American Farm Bureau Federation. California growers oppose it because it includes a requirement that employers verify the legal immigration status of their workers. The requirement, said thirty California agricultural groups, would “devastate” them. The growers I talked to want a timely and sufficient supply of cheap labor to harvest their crops that they can easily control. The current system has served them well for a century. Until the Goodlatte bill or any other program guarantees them cheap labor, they will continue to cooperate with California’s policy of barring ICE from workplace raids and roundups. As things stand, there is a labor shortage the magnitude of which hasn’t been seen in at least ninety years. It has prompted growers to rip out laborintensive fruits like table grapes and plant almond trees, which require relatively few workers. Housing costs, especially in the Coastal Valley, have made it even harder to attract and keep workers. In recent years, millions of dollars’ of unpicked crops have been plowed under or left to rot in the fields. “We’re all competing for the same worker,” said John D’Arrigo, president of D’Arrigo Brothers, the largest lettuce and broccoli grower in the Salinas Valley, with 38,000 acres under cultivation. D’Arrigo’s antilabor practices were the reason for an acrimonious lettuce boycott in the 1970s, led by Chavez and the UFW. Last summer, the company signed a contract with the UFW, for the sole purpose of ensuring itself a steady workforce. Fifteen hundred lettuce pickers will get $13.35 an hour and full medical coverage from the union health plan paid for by D’Arrigo during the months that they work. In exchange, the UFW will use its radio network to put out the word that D’Arrigo is a good employer and make sure that when D’Arrigo needs them, pickers will be in the fields.
—This is the first of two articles on California.