Similarly, the Border Patrol has done its share to spoil the ambience of East County by causing delays, interrogating locals, and intimidating passersby who are obviously American citizens at a Highway 94 checkpoint east of Jamul. The arrangement has transformed Streenan’s backcountry paradise into what he describes as a “maximum-security prison.”
“When they ask where I’m coming from, I tell them, ‘I’m coming from heaven and going to hell,’ because I’m going to the city,” Streenan says with a grin. “They’re only supposed to ask about citizenship. But they ask very irritating things like we’re in prison now.”
To exacerbate the situation, the prevalence of drug runners in the area has created a climate of mortal fear among locals. Rumors of corruption within the ranks of the Border Patrol have made many locals hesitant to report suspicious activities, lest they attract the attention of the Mexican cartels.
“[The authorities] can get paid off and come through here and shoot me down,” Streenan says. “I’m out here in the public. I don’t want to get killed. So you just don’t tell anybody anything. You don’t want to get blown away. Tell the wrong person, and you’re going to die.”
Streenan says he started noticing fewer illegal immigrants in his store and using the pay phone out front about eight months ago. “There’s no reason for them to come anymore,” he says. “There’s no work, just the drugs. And that’s dangerous.”
He puts the burden of responsibility on lawmakers, saying it’s the demand for Mexican drugs that allows the situation to exist. “They need to legalize it or do something to end this,” he says. “It’s not like they’re all smoking weed down there in Mexico.”
Many locals blame illegal immigrants for starting the 2007 Harris fire, which ignited just outside town and destroyed half the trailer park as well as several houses. The trailer park used to be full of tourists who would stay for a day or two before heading down to places like Mulegé or Loreto, in Baja California Sur. But tourists have been scared away from Mexico by the violence, Streenan laments, which means a gap in his annual income.
“Business is down probably about 42 percent a day,” he says. “I mean, everything is just gone.”
According to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California released in June 2008, California was home to approximately 2.8 million undocumented immigrants in 2006. While acknowledging that the figures can only be estimated, the report states that a quarter of the nation’s illegal immigrant population resides in California, making up 8 percent of the state’s population. However, illegal immigration is on the decline in the state, increasing by roughly 50,000 per year at the time the report was written compared to 100,000 per year in the 1990s. About 1 in 11 workers in California is an illegal immigrant.
“Two-thirds of California adults think that illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for work permits that would let them stay and work in the United States,” says the report. Seventy-two percent of Californians believe that “most illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least two years should be given a chance to keep their jobs and apply for legal status.” Only 25 percent would like to see them deported.
Reflecting the observations of Craig and Streenan, the institute’s April 2006 reports says, “When our economy is strong, illegal immigration increases. Inflows declined with the downturn of the U.S. economy in the early 2000s.”
However, challenging the oft-cited argument that undocumented laborers lower the working wage for everybody in a given industry, the 2006 report finds that illegal immigrants “have little effect on the wages and employment of U.S.-born workers. Such effects are felt most by low-skilled U.S. workers,” to the tune of about a 4 percent decrease in lifelong earnings for men without a high school diploma.
Ironically, increasing border security, the report finds, increases the number of illegal immigrants residing in the United States. As the border becomes more difficult to cross, many cyclical crossers are staying in the United States for longer periods of time, if not permanently.
But illegal immigration is only part of the problem. According to some, the U.S. immigration system is flawed to the point of crippling the economy.
For the past 25 years, Steve Scaroni has run a lettuce and leafy greens farming operation out of Heber, a town in the Imperial Valley. Ninety-nine percent of his 1000 or so employees are people born outside the United States. Nonimmigrants, Scaroni says, simply will not do farmwork.
“American nonimmigrants don’t raise their children to be farmworkers. Farmworkers don’t raise their children to be farmworkers.”
Scaroni estimates that 60 percent of his employees are documented immigrants. Forty percent are nonimmigrant foreign workers. An H-2A visa allows foreign nationals to work in the United States for a predetermined length of time. Costly, time-consuming, and process-intensive, according to Scaroni, the H-2A application procedure is “the process from hell.” He tolerates it, however, because it is the only way he can staff his operation. “There are simply not enough legal workers in the country to do the work that needs to get done,” he says.
Four years ago, fed up with the bureaucratic shuffle of H-2As, it was Scaroni who hopped the fence. He opened a sister farm in Guanajuato, Mexico, where his workforce costs a quarter of what it does in this country. After shipping and charges imposed by Mexico, his costs are on a par with his U.S. costs, but across the border he has no problem finding workers who are dependable, motivated, and legal. Scaroni is baffled by the absurdity of having to outsource his business to another country, calling the current U.S. policies “asinine.”
“U.S.-consumed vegetables and farm products will be produced by [foreign laborers],” Scaroni says. “The question for the U.S. is, will they be [foreign laborers] working in the U.S. on U.S. farms or [foreign laborers] producing U.S.-consumed vegetables in Mexico and third-world countries.”