Special Reports

Work ethic earns illegal immigrant a new life

The first time 16-year-old Nacho tried to cross the border, he was caught and turned over to Mexican police, who beat him up and took his money. But Nacho was a stubborn-headed teenager and tried again. Without the help of a smuggler, he made it across.

Now 39, Nacho owns a home in Kerman and manages a ranch. He's so indispensable that when a judge threatened to deport him for a series of traffic tickets in 2004, his boss pleaded with the judge: If you can find someone who can work as well as he does, then deport him. If not, then let him stay.

The judge let him stay.

His boss's intervention is an example of how much farmers have come to depend on illegal immigrants. Farmers say immigrant workers tend to have a better work ethic than other employees. Many have had decades of experience and can do the job better than anyone else.

It wasn't easy for Nacho to earn this respect. As a teenager, he cut grape clusters in Raisin City and lived in the back room of a shop with several other farmworkers.

It was 1987, the year after amnesty was granted for illegal farmworkers, and fake documents were readily available. Forgers created green cards in the middle of the fields and sold them for $50. Farmers almost always accepted them.

Eventually, a sympathetic rancher hired Nacho for $4.25 per hour and gave him free housing. In his new job, he learned to drive a tractor, operate machinery and manage a farm. Nacho kept just enough money to survive and sent the rest to his family in Mexico.

For the past 14 years, he's worked on the farm in Kerman, where half the employees are illegal immigrants. When he started out, he made less than anyone else, but his boss gave him several raises for his hard work. He now earns $40,000 to $50,000 a year, oversees a 25-member crew and works nonstop during the harvest season, sometimes as much as 90 hours a week.

For Nacho, the long hours and hard work are a blessing.

"I give thanks to God all the time," he said.

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