Vanessa, an illegal immigrant, has harvested fruit in Kerman, Huron and Madera for four years. Until this summer, she had never seen a white face in the fields.
Then one day, four teenagers showed up at a cherry orchard. They didn't speak Spanish, and they didn't seem to know what they were doing.
"Everybody was surprised to see them there," Vanessa said.
It didn't go so well for the newcomers. Within an hour, all four had quit.
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At the heart of the debate over illegal immigration is a question that burns as hot as the afternoon sun hovering over the Central Valley: Are illegal immigrants doing the work that no one else wants, or are they stealing jobs from Americans and dragging down their wages?
To some extent, both are true.
As Vanessa's story shows, some jobs might go unfilled — even in tough times — without illegal immigrants.
But there are drawbacks. Illegal immigrants push down wages for legal workers in food-processing, factory and service jobs, economists say. Because illegal immigrants will work for almost any wage, employers have little reason to pay other workers more. Sometimes jobs that low-skilled Americans would be willing to do, such as washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms, are instead taken by illegal immigrants.
Illegal immigrants help the nation's private-sector economy by providing cheap labor — something that is especially critical for the Central Valley. But their competition with low-skilled American workers and their strain on local government budgets cancel out that boost for that nation's overall economy, some economists say.
In the end, illegal immigration in the Valley means businesses are big winners while many blue-collar workers lose out.
Farmworker groups have tried to prove that we need illegal immigrants. In 2006, as Congress was considering immigration reform, immigrant workers around the country either stayed home or joined protests for the May 1 "Day Without Immigrants" economic boycott.
In the central San Joaquin Valley, the United Farm Workers of America estimated that tens of thousands of field workers didn't show up for work. Restaurants, landscape contractors, food manufacturers and growers all struggled to make it through the day with skeleton crews.
With immigration reform again on Congress' agenda, the UFW has tried to bring attention to the role of illegal immigrants, which it says account for half a million farmworkers. It launched a campaign in June called TakeOurJobs.org that invited anyone to sign up online for a farming job.
The campaign was mostly meant to grab headlines — and it did. UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez was invited to appear on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" to talk about the campaign.
"Americans do not work in the field because it's very difficult work, requires a lot of expertise and the conditions are horrid," he told host Stephen Colbert.
More than 10,000 people registered on the website; only 11 people actually went out to work in the fields — including Colbert.
Economists say illegal immigrants play a key role in the nation's economy: Their willingness to work for low wages helps keep American businesses competitive and lowers the cost of goods and services.
But their economic benefit is very small. One researcher estimated that it represents only the slightest fraction of the country's gross domestic product — 3 cents for every $100 the economy generates. That means that most businesses are only marginally more efficient thanks to illegal immigrants, although some businesses that rely heavily on them — including those in agriculture — benefit greatly.
Illegal immigrants also offer another advantage: They are much more mobile than legal immigrants, who often have more family ties or are required by law to work for the employer who sponsored their visas. They follow the booms and busts in the construction industry and are "much more responsive to changes in the economy," said Michael Fix, senior vice president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
From 2002 to 2006, the number of illegal immigrants living in the country increased each year by about 500,000 during the economic boom, climbing from 9.3 million to 11.6 million; but from 2007 to 2009, during the height of the recession, the total decreased by more than 1.5 million. During the 1990s, the illegal immigrant population grew the most in the mountain states and Southeast — places where job growth was strongest.
The role of illegal immigrants has become even more critical because Americans are, on average, much more educated now than half a century ago. The economy needs immigrants to fill the low-skill jobs, some economists say.
In an ideal world, the United States would let in enough foreign workers to do the jobs unwanted by most U.S.-born workers, said Gordon Hanson, an economics professor at the University of California at San Diego, who grew up in Fresno.
But America's restrictive immigration system doesn't allow that. So illegal immigrants fill in the gaps by being the first to enter the country when there are jobs and the first to leave when jobs dry up.
Many economists say illegal immigrants have hurt the wages of low-skilled U.S.-born workers. One economist, Harvard University's George Borjas, concluded that wages fall by 3% to 4% for every 10% increase in the number of workers in a particular skill group.
In other words, more competition for jobs means lower pay. He found that the average wage of U.S.-born high-school dropouts decreased by 5% to 8% from 1980 to 2000 because of competition with immigrants.
This trend has been especially true in industries that have increasingly employed illegal immigrants. Since 1980, for example, the average wage for meatpackers has dropped 45%, adjusted for inflation, according to government data.
The Center for Immigration Studies found that one company had to raise its pay after being forced to fire illegal workers. In 2006, federal immigration agents arrested 1,300 employees at six meat-processing plants owned by Swift & Co., where an estimated 23% of the workers were illegal immigrants. After the raids, the company advertised heavily for new workers and paid employees bonuses if they recruited others.
Within five months, the plants were running at full capacity again — a sign that the company could operate without illegal immigrants, according to the report. Meanwhile, wages increased slightly at two of the plants and four offered signing bonuses.
Some experts say employers pay illegal immigrants less than other workers because they are less willing to demand a raise or draw attention to their legal status — and that drives down the wages for all workers. Researcher Anita Alves Pena, an economics professor at Colorado State University, found in a study earlier this year that illegal immigrant farmworkers earn 5% to 6% less in hourly wages than legal immigrant workers.
Gerardo Gomez, who crossed the border with his future wife in 1989 and now lives in Madera, spent years working in the fields because other employers wouldn't hire him without a real Social Security card and green card.
"If there was a job, I was willing to do it — it didn't matter what," Gomez said. "But the jobs that paid more money required documents. Just to clean and work in the hospital required documents."
Finally, in 1994, he got a job working for a small construction company that built fireplaces. His boss paid him about $7 an hour while the other workers — all of them legal immigrants or U.S.-born — were paid $10 an hour. When Gomez asked for a raise, his boss said, "OK, but first bring me your papers." Gomez knew he couldn't complain.
Not all economists agree that illegal immigrants hurt American workers. Giovanni Peri, an economics professor at the University of California at Davis, contends that when the economy is growing, the employment of low-skilled immigrants creates jobs that are typically filled by U.S.-born workers. A construction company that hires five new roofers may promote one of its U.S.-born workers to supervisor — a job that requires English proficiency — or hire a U.S.-born clerical worker.
Peri noted, however, that the recession has made it more difficult for U.S.-born workers to compete with illegal immigrants for jobs.
Some American workers are fighting back.
A class-action lawsuit against the SK Foods tomato-processing plant in Lemoore claims the company knowingly hired hundreds of illegal immigrants over several years to save millions of dollars a year in labor costs. The Chicago attorney who filed the lawsuit, Howard Foster, estimated that the so-called "illegal immigrant hiring scheme" depressed the wages of other workers by at least 15% and made it easier for the company to get away with "deplorable working conditions" because illegal immigrants were less willing to complain for fear of losing their jobs.
Foster has filed similar lawsuits across the country in the past decade with some success — and said he will likely file many more.
"Workers call me and e-mail me almost every day asking, 'Can you help me? Can you represent me?' " Foster said, noting that many of the calls are from the Central Valley, where he said the food-processing industry is "rife with illegal workers."
The lawsuit says SK Foods' management knew it was hiring illegal workers because many couldn't speak English, presented documents that were obviously fake or had previously been hired by the company under a different name. Company CEO Scott Salyer denies that illegal immigrants were hired, according to his attorney.
So what would happen if there were no illegal immigrants? Because the central San Joaquin Valley is heavily dependent on them, a mass deportation would certainly hit the agriculture industry hard, at least in the short term. But it would also be easier for other less-educated, U.S.-born workers and legal immigrants to find jobs, and their wages could improve.
"The truth be told, if we were to eliminate illegal immigration over the next five years, the impact on the economy wouldn't be that large," Hanson said. "But it would hit parts of the country very hard, particularly Fresno. The farmers would have to change what they do and some would go out of business or would have to move toward much less-labor intensive crops."
Some economists say employers need to do just that: change. They say farmers have become addicted to cheap labor rather than shift to less labor-intensive crops and invest in technology that would reduce the need for fieldworkers.
In the 1970s, after the end of the Bracero program that brought in thousands of seasonal Mexican workers, farmers were forced to grow tomatoes with thicker skins that could be harvested with machines, reducing labor costs. Soon they were picking twice as many tomatoes with half as many workers, Camarota said.
Philip Martin, an immigration and farm labor expert at the University of California at Davis, offered another example: Farmers in the Central Valley used to always be "screaming about a labor shortage" needed for the raisin grape harvest. Now a method called dried-on-the-vine harvesting allows them to use fewer workers.
Without illegal immigrants, similar changes would have to happen — although they would inevitably have some consequences.
"Would some farmers go out of business? Yeah, but we would see a restructuring of that industry," Camarota said.
Some economists also say that if farmers paid better wages, more U.S.-born workers would be willing to work in agriculture.
Experts also say the cost of food would rise only slightly if wages increased. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, for example, that the wages for production workers account for only 7% of retail beef prices and 9% of pork prices.
"Illegal immigration is not necessary for the functioning of a modern economy," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "But certain industries have gotten accustomed to it, and they benefit from it."
Not everyone agrees increasing wages would work. Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, an association of agriculture businesses in the Western U.S., said farmers would have to dramatically increase wages to convince U.S.-born workers to take a job in the fields — and even if they did, many would probably work just long enough to make a little money and then quit.
Cunha said that raising wages would hurt growers, whose No. 1 cost is labor. Grocery chains would turn to foreign countries to buy cheaper food, he said.
Besides, he said, most workers born here are unwilling to work mind-numbing food-processing jobs or do back-breaking fieldwork — no matter what they're paid. According to government data, 98% of farmworkers in California are immigrants.
Some experts say there's also a cultural stigma to working in the fields that would be difficult to overcome if farmers had to depend on U.S.-born workers.
"They're doing a lot of jobs other people simply won't do," said John Hernandez, executive director of Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "I'm not going to go in there and slaughter a cow."
Alfred de la Cerda, a pastor in Orosi, said that when his U.S.-born son was 18 and waffling on whether to go to college, he suggested his son try fieldwork. Every day, the teenager came home exhausted. After two weeks, he quit the job and enrolled in Reedley College instead.
Said de la Cerda: "The truth is, no one born here will go out in the fields."
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