In the Valley of Fear


Matt Black/Magnum PhotosTomato harvest, Firebaugh, California, 2014

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. It will keep rising. The radio stations are predominantly Spanish: ranchera music, boleros, corridos, ballads of spurned love, and the distinctive norteño sound—percussive, driving, no brass. On the English-language station an indignant voice advises listeners to be mentally vigilant against “sitcoms, news reports,” the entire panoply of “mainstream media because it’s all the same skank, it’s all from one cesspool, their snakish agenda for a one-world order.” The country music summer hit is called “Take a Drunk Girl Home.”

The Valley is flat, under a constant cloud of dust, smog, pesticides, and smoke. The smog is from Bay Area traffic carried in by the wind, the pesticides from the millions of pounds of chemicals poured onto the land every year, the smoke from the wildfires that burn to the north and get trapped in the Valley, pushed to the ground by the heat. The cloud is kept there by the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Coast Ranges to the west, and the Tehachapi Mountains to the south, which the Fresno-based writer Mark Arax calls “our Mason-Dixon Line,” because it marks the Valley’s physical and psychological separation from the cosmopolitan culture of Southern California and Los Angeles. The city of Bakersfield and the area around it, on the southern edge of the Valley, has the worst air quality in the United States.

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. The clementines that we buy in netted bags at the supermarket are grown here, as are the pomegranates that make the juice we are told protects us from cancer. The revenue from all the crops harvested here and elsewhere in California is $47 billion a year, more than double that of Iowa, the next-biggest agricultural state. Most of this revenue benefits a few hundred families, some with as many as 20,000 or even 40,000 acres of land.

Plantations on the west side of the Valley are so huge that managers keep track of workers by flying over the fields in planes. Computers monitor the release of water, which is delivered to the plants with an intricate system of pipes and valves. “It’s prisons and plantations, nothing else,” Paul Chavez, the son of Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union (UFW), told me. “You can’t even get an education in these places. According to the state of California’s own survey, in farmworker towns barely 30 percent of school teachers are accredited.”

When Cesar Chavez started organizing farmworkers in the 1950s, his son said, 12 to 14 percent of field hands “were still Okies and Arkies, the Steinbeck people,” and 8 to 10 percent were African-Americans brought in by cotton planters during the boll weevil infestation in the 1920s. About 12 percent were Filipino, and 55 percent were Mexican, “half of them Mexican nationals, the other half first-generation Americans like my father.”

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.

In late June, I visited a tomato field in Fresno County near the town of Mendota. The fields are owned by Gargiulo, one of the biggest tomato growers in the country. Dozens of beat-up cars were parked at the edge of the various sections that were ready for harvest. Clusters of Mixteco workers relied on the one fluent Spanish speaker among them to communicate with the crew foreman and the union representative from the UFW who had smuggled me onto the property. During peak season these fields employ four hundred pickers; about 250 were working that day, almost half of them women, some of them visibly pregnant.

Because of the heat, the workday lasted from 5 to 10 AM, when temperatures rose to 113 degrees. The sun beat down, but everyone was covered from head to foot in several layers of clothes: cracked baseball caps anchored in place by hoodies and homemade scarves, sweatshirts over sweatshirts, two pairs of pants, heavy socks and boots; only eyes and cheeks and fingers were exposed. This was to protect against pesticides. Cancer rates among pickers throughout the Valley are high. The soil is so hardened by chemicals that it comes up in the hand in dry, pale stone-like clumps. In the heat the chemicals rise potently from the earth; within an hour I tasted them burning in my mouth.

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, California’s minimum wage.1 Younger workers filled two buckets at a time, yanking supersized green tomatoes from their plants, flicking off the stems, dropping them into the bucket, then racing to deliver them to the packing trailer hitched to a tractor fifty or sixty yards away at the end of the section. They then ran back to the harvest row, calling and shouting to one another like soldiers to keep up their spirits and pace. In five hours, a skilled picker could earn between $75 and $85.

The tomato season lasts four months, from June to October, after which the workers move to the east side of the Valley to pick citrus or prune grapevines and fruit trees. With luck, a diligent field hand can find work eight or nine months a year, earning $20,000 to $23,000, before taxes. In 2010, undocumented workers paid about $12 billion in Social Security taxes, money that accrued to the retirement benefits of American citizens—benefits those workers will likely never receive.

In response to the argument that immigrants steal jobs from Americans by undercutting their wages, the UFW 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. According to a Los Angeles Times report, Silverado, a farm labor contractor in Napa, “has never had a white, American-born person take an entry-level gig, even after the company increased hourly wages to $4 above the minimum.” A wine grower in Stockton couldn’t lure unemployed citizens for $20 an hour.

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. Since 2005 more Mexicans have been leaving the US than arriving. And this isn’t only because of a crackdown at the border. In 2000, when the border was far more porous than it is now, 1.6 million Mexicans were apprehended trying to cross into the US. In 2016 the number was 192,969.2 Ed Taylor, an economist at UC Davis, estimates that the number of potential immigrants from rural Mexico shrinks every year by 150,000. This can be partly explained by improved economic conditions in northern and central Mexico, which have dimmed the allure of minimum-wage labor in the US, and partly by the cost and danger of venturing across the border. If you do make it into the US, payments to a smuggler can keep a minimum-wage laborer in debt for life.

We have witnessed families being separated at the border—images of primal outrage. But the cruelties visited upon undocumented immigrants on the lowest rungs of the labor force who already live in the US have received far less attention. Thousands exist in a cordon of terror, and this is true in California despite its sanctuary laws. Some Californians argue that sanctuary laws have actually made matters worse, by turning ICE into a roving paramilitary force beefed up by an ever-increasing budget and egged on by the president’s open contempt.

Everywhere I went in the San Joaquin Valley fear of la migra was palpable. Some farmworkers were afraid to leave their homes for the fields or even to go grocery shopping because of the pervasive presence of ICE, in both marked and unmarked cars. On Radio Campesina, a network of Spanish-language stations in the Valley owned by the Cesar Chavez Foundation, people called in to advise listeners of where ICE agents had been spotted—at a supermarket, at a school, at a pop-up road checkpoint. “We tell our listeners what’s going on out there, what to expect, what to avoid,” the Bakersfield station manager for Radio Campesina told me. “We give subtle warnings, we keep them apprised. But we have to be sure that it comes from random call-ins or we’ll be liable to charges of obstruction.”

The federal policy appears to be to deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible and to make life so untenable for the rest that they leave the country on their own. ICE agents scour the Valley for Mexicans who have entered the legal system for minor infractions—fines, summonses, at worst a victimless DUI. The husband of a woman I spoke with was deported for an unpaid speeding ticket after living in California for twenty-two years.

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. “Our main job is instructing people on how to deal with ICE,” said Fatima Hernandez, an adviser at the UFW Bakersfield office. “How to avoid arrest and deportation.” The instructions are simple and severe. Don’t answer a single question; don’t sign anything; don’t show any documents; don’t allow an agent into your house unless he slides a signed warrant with your name on it under the door. They urge immigrants to take pictures and videos, to note badge numbers and car types: “Be prepared to show exactly what transpired.” Their main protection is the Fifth Amendment, which grants even a noncitizen the right to remain silent.

Hernandez and her colleagues seemed shaken by the climate of fear coursing through the Valley “like an electric shock.” 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. The backlog is enormous. The court has innumerable cases on the docket and plows through them numbly.

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 benefits, Head Start, and child development services. The Trump administration recently announced a rules change that would make immigrants and green card holders ineligible for naturalization if they have received or applied for social assistance. People out of work, as farmworkers invariably are for part of the year, go hungry rather than run the risk of being put on a government blacklist.

Paranoia has infiltrated every aspect of life. Civic activity, such as attending town meetings and other public events, has ground to a virtual halt. “People change their names or ask that their faces be blocked out, if they agree to give testimony or share their stories on media at all,” said Eriberto Fernandez, an organizer whose parents still pick table grapes in Kern County. “Some don’t even want to be seen on our Facebook page.” When he was a child his parents took him along to the fields because there was no one to care for him while they worked. “By the time I was seven or eight I started working alongside them myself after school. A typical story.” Fernandez now registers Latinos to vote, with little success:

People tell us, “We voted last time and things got worse. We’re not voting anymore.” There was a record low turnout of Latinos in Monterey County in the June 5 primary. There’s just a lot of pessimism on the part of first- , second- , and third-generation Latinos—Latinos who are US citizens.

Some of them may resent illegals or look down on them or simply not care. A significant minority—25 to 30 percent by most counts—favor Republican gun laws and oppose abortion.

In Delano I met an eighteen-year-old woman named Rufina García. She had lived in the US since she was one and a half; her Mixteco parents brought her with them from the town of Putla in Oaxaca. Both of them worked in the fields, moving with the harvest, picking cherries, grapes, mandarins, and oranges. In sixteen and a half years in the US, they had five more children, all of them born in the San Joaquin Valley.

For months they had been noticing ICE agents hovering around them, tracking their movements. The agents would appear in the parking lot of the building where they lived or at the children’s school or just drive behind them, letting them know they had been singled out, that they were being watched. Neither Rufina nor her parents understood why—la migra usually went after people with a police record. “My brother got good at spotting them while my father drove,” she said. “You can tell the unmarked ones by their license plates. My father was very anxious. He knew what they could do to us. They could take away everything. He kept asking me, Why us?”

At 6 AM on March 13 her parents dropped Rufina’s sister at RFK High School for early morning track practice. As they drove away, two ICE officers who had been tailing them since they had left home flashed their emergency lights to signal them to pull over. Rufina’s father, Santos, obeyed, but as the agents approached the car, he panicked and stepped on the gas. The agents gave chase at high speed. Santos crashed into a utility pole; the car flipped over on its side. He and Rufina’s mother, Marcelina, were killed.

It turned out the ICE agents had mistaken Santos for his brother, Celestino, whom they had intended to deport for a 2013 DUI. The DUI carried no charge of reckless driving and had been satisfactorily settled in court. The deaths galvanized farmworkers in the valley. It seemed more than an accident; it seemed a natural result of what they all experienced, in one way or another, under la migra’s surveillance. Hundreds of people came to the funeral. Camera and TV crews swooped in. Arturo Rodriguez, the avuncular president of the UFW, showed up, and the funeral took on the aura of a timid demonstration.


Michael GreenbergRufina García at the roadside shrine for her parents, who died in a car crash while being pursued by ICE agents, Delano, California, June 2018

Not long after the funeral, ICE agents deployed multiple cars to encircle Celestino in his home and take him away as if he were a dangerous criminal. He was immediately deported, leaving behind his wife and four children, two of whom are US citizens. Under duress he signed his own deportation papers, which meant he would be thrown out of the US without a hearing and could never return. Rufina believes ICE made a spectacle of his arrest because he had given interviews to the press about the accident and the toll it had taken on the family. “He was helping us emotionally,” she said. “He was like a son to my father. My father raised him.”

Rufina—a so-called Dreamer, with no legal status and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that controls her fate in judicial limbo—now had to care for herself, her five siblings, the youngest of whom was eight, and her one-year-old baby, William. Her eyes were opaque and unshakably sad. I had the sense that she was living in two worlds—the one in which we were politely conversing and a nightmare world that she appeared to be unable to escape or comprehend.

She wanted me to see the roadside shrine to her parents, near the spot where they were killed. On the way we drove past the Forty Acres, the dusty site of a former gas station where, in 1968, Cesar Chavez conducted a twenty-five-day fast to bring attention to a strike against Giumarra Brothers, the largest table grape growers in the Valley. Robert Kennedy visited Chavez the day he broke the fast, an event that made Chavez famous and thrust the plight of California’s farmworkers into the national spotlight. Seventy thousand grape pickers were unionized in 1970, after the strikers, with the support of a national grape boycott, prevailed.

Today the UFW represents only about 10,000 workers, partly because Chavez envisioned his union as a social movement that would provide its members with everything—religious life, social life, housing—rather than as merely an agent for collective bargaining, with its tedious (and to Chavez materialistic) focus on pay raises and benefits. There were limits to what the UFW could reasonably deliver in this regard, and many farmworkers were lured by the Teamsters, who began negotiating contracts with growers after the UFW’s initial success in the 1970s. Chavez was a mystical Catholic at heart; he called his fasts “acts of penance,” not hunger strikes. Paul Chavez told me that he would have gone to Mass every day if he could have.

There are other reasons why the UFW shrunk. After becoming governor in 1983, George Deukmejian repaid growers for their support by dismantling the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which had been set up by Jerry Brown—a serious blow to the organizing capabilities of the union. The itinerant nature of fieldwork, combined with the fact that today almost no pickers enjoy the legal protection of US citizenship, makes organizing more difficult. Long-term benefits are of little use to field hands who may be deported at any moment and need every penny of their wages to feed themselves and their children. I saw for myself the futility of a UFW representative’s trying to get tomato pickers to sign on to a union pension plan. The concept seemed absurd to them, like being asked to throw their money into the sea.

The shrine to Rufina’s parents was on a boiling two-lane road near the turnoff to North Kern Prison, which we could see through the heat, enclosed in shining coils of concertina wire. PRISON DON’T PICK UP HITCHHIKERS said a sign on the side of the road. On the other side of the road was another prison, for women. Footage from the prisons’ surveillance cameras of ICE agents tearing down the empty road in pursuit of Santos and Marcelina indicated that they had lied when they told Delano police they had not given chase, but they were not prosecuted. A woman on her way to work at the prison had stopped and held Marcelina’s hand through the window of the overturned car while she died. The agents parked a quarter-mile away and didn’t offer assistance. Forty minutes later, an ambulance arrived.

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.”

The 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 labor-intensive 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.

  1. 1

    It is set to rise to $12 per hour in 2019, $13 per hour in 2020, and $15 per hour in 2022. 

  2. 2

    As of 2014, 5.8 million unauthorized Mexicans live in the US, down from 6.9 million in 2007. About 30 percent of these reside in California, more than in any other state by far. 

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