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The Fresno Bee spent months interviewing more than a hundred farmers, public officials, experts and illegal immigrants. The goal: to explain how inconsistent laws, policies and attitudes have made illegal immigrants a central yet hidden part of the San Joaquin Valleys economy.
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The contradictions are everywhere: Americans want illegal immigration to stop, but they enjoy its benefits of cheap goods and services. Lawmakers won't force businesses to verify their workers' legal status. And the government provides free services to illegal immigrants, whose taxes do not cover those services.
A thriving trade in fake documents is at the heart of a system that works well for many industries, including farming, construction and food service. Employees pretend theyre legal residents; employers pretend they dont know any better.
Businesses have a simple way to check that their new hires are legal. Experts say it could reduce the lure of employment that draws illegal immigrants. But most employers who depend on illegal workers -- including the vast majority of agriculture businesses in the Central Valley -- won't use it.
Immigration agents have learned to tread lightly with employers who rely on illegal immigrants. Aggressive crackdowns can backfire. But a renewed focus on audits could put pressure on more businesses.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant workers keep the Central Valley's economy humming -- at a price that burdens local and state governments.
At the heart of the debate over illegal immigration is a question that burns as hot as the afternoon sun over the Central Valley: Are illegal immigrants doing the work no one else wants, or are they stealing jobs and dragging down wages?
The government has a guest-worker program designed to fill seasonal jobs, but Central Valley farmers say it's too difficult to use. So they keep hiring illegal immigrants.