In the rolling hills above the farm community of Santa Paula, acres and acres of avocado and citrus trees spread out like a postcard from California’s small-farm past. This is a rural area, but people here aren’t Donald Trump voters — Santa Paula voted 2-1 against him. The town of 30,000 in Ventura County is largely Latino, with an economy based on agriculture — an economy that depends on immigrant workers, many of them undocumented.

When I first meet Luis, he’s standing on top of a ladder in an avocado tree, cutting fruit for harvest. He collects up to 80 pounds of avocados in a canvas sack on his back, then climbs down and lugs it to a collection bin, dumping the fruit with a rumble.

“It’s a pretty nice workout,” he jokes. Then he starts back up the tree for another round.

Ventura County is one of the United States' top agricultural producers, growing citrus, avocados and strawberries sold nationwide. According to the Ventura County farm bureau, as many as 36,000 field workers bring the harvest in every season -- almost all of them immigrants.
Ventura County is one of the United States’ top agricultural producers, growing citrus, avocados and strawberries sold nationwide. According to the Ventura County farm bureau, as many as 36,000 field workers bring the harvest in every season — almost all of them immigrants. (Marcus Teply/KQED)

It’s his fourth year on the harvest, and like many workers in Ventura County, Luis is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. I’m identifying him only by his first name over fears he could be deported.

“We work like a lot of people,” he says, “We don’t have papers. We cross the border, they say, ‘illegally.’ ”

He says he likes his job, and he’s good at it. That’s why the farm, Brokaw Ranch Co., wants to keep him and the rest of the contracted crew he works on.

Brokaw Ranch manager Jose Alcaraz explains it’s hard to find harvest crews who can work quickly and efficiently, and it’s time-consuming to train new ones.

“If we have a good crew, we don’t want to lose it,” he says.

Alcaraz is a U.S. citizen now, but decades ago he came to Santa Paula from Mexico just like Luis. So, he understands why farmworkers are worried about President Trump — farming businesses are worried, too.

“We are in the same boat,” he says. “We need each other, so we are concerned — if they are concerned, we are concerned, too.”

Trump’s promises to deport people in the country without authorization have people on edge, especially in California agriculture.

Ventura County’s farm bureau estimates there are about 36,000 immigrant workers, many of them undocumented, bringing in the county’s $2 billion harvest. According to an estimate by the Center for Farmworker Families, about 75 percent of California’s agricultural workers are unauthorized immigrants.

But authorization or not, farms need workers, and they were scraping to find them even before Trump’s election. Field work is hard, and the pay’s not great — about $12 an hour to start, although fast, experienced crews like Luis’ can earn up to $20 an hour on a piecework rate. But it’s hot, dirty, physical work, and farms all over the country have struggled to find legal workers willing to do it.

Ranch owner Ellen Brokaw says she’s tried to hire U.S. workers, as part of federal rules linked to a guest worker program she has turned to since the labor supply started to dry up. But she says U.S.-born workers don’t want the jobs, and so she depends on immigrants to keep the business going.

“Some people apply, but almost never do any of them stay. So there’s no way that we can take care of and pick our crops without immigrant labor,” she says.

If mass deportations hit Santa Paula, she and Alcaraz both say Brokaw Ranch would lose much of its harvest.

“We would have to abandon most of our crops,” Brokaw says.

Brokaw says what agriculture here needs is “humane and reasonable” immigration reform. Instead, with Trump in the White House, Santa Paula and other farm communities are worried he’ll deport their workforce, who also happen to be their neighbors.

Ellen Brokaw owns Brokaw Ranch Company, which produces avocados, oranges, lemons, and other fruits in Ventura County. “There's no way that we can take care of and pick our crops without immigrant labor,” she says.
Ellen Brokaw owns Brokaw Ranch Co., which produces avocados, oranges, lemons and other fruits in Ventura County. ‘There’s no way that we can take care of and pick our crops without immigrant labor,’ she says. (Marcus Teply/KQED)

“Anybody who gets stopped or confronted who doesn’t have papers is vulnerable. It’s an awful way to live, under that shadow.” Brokaw says, adding that the threat of raids is disruptive to a community of which undocumented workers are “absolutely, absolutely” a part.

“These people who are here cultivating and harvesting our crops are hard-working people who just want to live safely and support their families. And the way in which they are demonized is … deeply distressing. And totally inaccurate,” she says.

Rumors of raids have been flying, and there already have been arrests reported in nearby communities. Alcaraz says people in Santa Paula are scared.

So they’re preparing for the worst. Local community groups are doing outreach, setting up town hall meetings with lawyers and advocates to make sure undocumented people know their rights. One group has set up a text alert system to warn of ICE raids.

As he hauls yet another sack of avocados, Luis says he’s keeping his head down and staying on the right side of the law as much as he can.

“I’m trying to do good, you know? Because I’m planning to live my whole life right here,” he says. “I really like it. California’s a pretty good state.”

And with a wave, he heads off back to work.

Deportation Threats Worry Farmworkers — and Farm Owners 20 March,2017Victoria Mauleon
  • Curious

    ““Anybody who gets stopped or confronted who doesn’t have doesn’t have papers is vulnerable. It’s a awful way to live, under that shadow.”
    And yet that is how it is throughout the civilized world.

  • Bayard Rustin

    How about recruiting folks in Flint, MI an other struggling parts of the United States? It’s seems like not enough creative problem solving has taken place for these privilege farm owners, hire me to recruit other people of color; you are offering a healthy living wage put it seems some penalties should be award for business people who don’t hire people authorized to work in the land the are tending.

  • Mary Sonrisa

    How about paying an amount people should get for such work: $35/hr and benefits. Where I live, young illegals stand on the corner and get picked up to do hot dirty work for $20/hr. In much of California, $12/hr is not a living wage. If all farms were required to pay well, our food costs would go up, but we wouldn’t stop buying food.

    • DrG

      Food costs would triple, assuming you could find legal labor to work in 100+ degree heat. There are many people who are just barely getting by on food prices as they are, tripling prices would bring people to starvation or crime.

  • annjohns

    “These people who are here cultivating and harvesting our crops are
    hard-working people who just want to live safely and support their
    families. And the way in which they are demonized is … deeply
    distressing. And totally inaccurate,” she says. She’s correct, she is the demon. The reason other workers don’t stay is the entire industry is a nepotistic, mono-ethnic Spanish speaking workplace. Typical that the manager himself is a former illegal alien who received amnesty and now recruits illegal aliens.

    • AlexD

      Truthfully, US workers have never wanted to do this work. It’s not a coincidence or nepotism that this industry is maintained through immigrant labor (& please be aware that it is not only Latino immigrants!). Historically, there have been Japanese workers, Filipino workers, Chinese pickers, any group that was marginalized and didn’t have other opportunities due to lack of education, language, etc. The only time US citizens came en masse to California, specifically to do agricultural labor was during the Dust Bowl/Great Depression because they had NO other options and were desperate for any work, no matter how physical or difficult. And even then, many of them immediately exited the industry as soon as financially possible. So again, HOW exactly is this industry supposed to force people to take jobs they don’t want and have never wanted? The reason other workers don’t stay is because this work is looked down upon by society as a whole, it is not something we teach our population to aspire to and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Perhaps think of this before blaming the “illegals” for a situation they did not create and ask yourself who, exactly, is supposed to be filling these jobs?

      • jskdn

        Of course most people don’t do work because they want to, they do for the money. And there’s not job that legal workers won’t do at the right price. Remember John McCain’s fake offer of $50 an hour to pick lettuce for a season in Yuma. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWOZKeOauNI&eurl= I’d expect plenty of competition for jobs that would pay around $10,000 a month for the five month season.

        Of course in the real world it took only going to $13 from $11 with a promise of $15 the next year for the Christopher Ranch garlic farm. “How this garlic farm went from a labor shortage to over 150 people on its applicant waitlist.” Existing wages for farm work are inadequate given how close they are to many minimum wage jobs that are much less demanding and have other more favorable characteristics, like consistency and location, in a labor market without lots of illegal immigrants. Considerably more difficult, intermittent farm employment would have to pay a considerable premium over more favorable condition jobs, absent the large scale employment of illegal immigrants.

        Of course not all farmworkers are illegal immigrants. This article quotes an advocacy group that it’s 3/4’s but another I read this week said half. Those legal workers are earning less because of your and KQED’s support for illegal immigrant employment. Farmer like having a “marginalized” and you seem happy to make sure that have that.

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