Farmworker in custody. “Those guys there are pure Oaxacans. The reason the [farm] foremen like ’em is that, Jesus, they’re hard workers."
Almost exactly five years ago, a reporter from a Del Mar weekly newspaper wrote a story about one of the primitive camps hidden away in the North County underbrush where the illegal aliens live. There was nothing new about the camps, but they rarely come to the attention of San Diego County journalists or politicians or bureaucrats.
Mike Connell: “As soon as we start hitting the fields out there, the word gets out real quick.”
Within days of the Del Mar story, other news people from the San Diego Union and the Los Angeles Times and the local television stations were stomping through the tangle of McGonigle Canyon, and so were city and county bigwigs. Pete Wilson, mayor at the time, reportedly was appalled by reports of the squalor, and called for an investigation.
Lopez told me not to take offense, but that no American would want to pick crops.
City manager Ray Blair fulminated that the existence of the camps could not be condoned. The board of supervisors announced that county officials would correct the situation since the Border Patrol seemed to be shirking its responsibility. It took weeks for the sense of outrage to abate. Today, nothing about the camps has changed.
Agua Hediodanda, Carlsbad. These encampments are one of the great ironies of life in contemporary San Diego County.
Today, like five years ago, the canyons and hillsides throughout the North County conceal a sprawling network of hidden colonies in which undocumented farmworkers live under worse conditions than do the vast majority of Tijuana residents, hanging their perishable food supplies from tree branches, sleeping under cardboard, defecating on rotting piles of human waste.
Washing clothes in irrigation pipe, Carlsbad. Undocumented farmworkers live under worse conditions than do the vast majority of Tijuana residents.
The continued existence of these encampments in the shadow of the prosperous northern suburbs is one of the great ironies of life in contemporary San Diego County, one among many. Here’s another: although agriculture is this county’s fourth biggest industry, a majority of the people who grow the food here are not supposed to be in this country.
Local Border Patrol agents know this; in fact they say that more than ninety-five percent of the North County farmworkers are illegals. The agents know where the farms are. Yet every day tomatoes in the Fields in Oceanside and Carlsbad and Del Mar ripen and are plucked by the calloused brown hands of an illicit army.
Encinitas Town and Country Shopping Center, one of the biggest “open staging areas” in the county.
How can this be? I put the question to Mike Connell, the man in charge of the El Cajon Border Patrol station. Whereas the Border Patrol agents in San Ysidro concentrate on policing the border itself, and agents in the San Clemente and Temecula stations mainly work at screening traffic on the highways leading north, the El Cajon agents hold the primary responsibility for conducting “farm and ranch patrols” — that is, catching farmworkers. Connell is an outdoorsman with a tough, brisk manner. At my question, he wheeled around and pointed to a map of the area patrolled by his men.
The rancher pays $3.35 per hour for picking. “You have to be hungry to do this type of work."
“The El Cajon station covers between 2200 and 2300 square miles,” he stated. Although about twenty-five agents are available to work out of the station at any time, Connell says when you divide that among three shifts and figure in vacations, illness, and so on, his average crew size is only about six to ten people during the day, and three to five, evenings and nights. “So you can see, the alien's chance of being picked up by us is very slim.” That is, the chance of any individual illegal farmworker being caught is slim; Connell says there is no chance of his agents ever returning empty-handed. He indicates it’s a little like going out in San Diego in search of grains of sand; you 're limited only by how many people you have and the size of their carrying receptacles.
This last May, Connell's agents caught more than 3300 illegal aliens, the vast majority of whom were farmworkers. Connell says they could catch more, “but I'm not the kind of guy who only pays attention to the numbers and nothing else.” Thus even though the farm raids net the biggest numbers, Connell has his people do a variety of other tasks, such as catching landscapers in the act of working with undocumented Mexicans in suburban neighborhoods. Other days they’ll track individual Mexicans through the back country. “Or we could make a living just doing freight trains. But you really need to give everything some attention to keep ’em guessing. For example, if we were to do nothing but farm and ranch work for a while, the [bus and train] terminals downtown would go wild.” Connell also says, “I’m a great believer in variety. Otherwise, you burn out.” This particular day held the promise of a special change of pace. Connell was staging a major farm and ranch raid, the likes of which the El Cajon station only undertakes once or twice a month; the chief had thus assembled ten veteran agents and five trainees who would travel in six four-wheel-drive vehicles, two vans, and a bus. Shortly after 8:00 a.m. the caravan rolled out of the modest headquarters across from Gillespie Field in El Cajon, heading northwest toward Black Mountain, just east of Rancho Bernardo. Up at the mountain, a helicopter would await the raiding party.
“Every time we go up there we ask for the helicopter because it’s such a valuable tool. Otherwise you just find yourselves in a one-to-one foot chase.” Even fortified by the chopper’s ability to spot where farm crews are working, the Border Patrol faces a formidable range of obstacles, according to Connell. “As soon as we start hitting the fields out there on any given day, the word gets out real quick.” Farmers respond by stationing spotters whose sole job is to broadcast the patrol’s approach. “The [picking] crews also are highly migratory. Say the helicopter will report a crew of seventy-five in one place, but by the time we arrive, they might be two miles away.”
Connell’s team's first target this morning was to be one of the large fields in the shadow of Black Mountain run by the Ukegawa Brothers, one of the largest growers in the county. At the unattended metal gates guarding the entrance to the property, the caravan paused while one of the Border Patrol agents opened the barrier. Connell says law courts long ago ruled that Border Patrol agents don’t need search warrants to enter farms. Recognizing that, many local farmers give the agents keys to their gates, Connell says. Otherwise the agents can cut through the chain, replacing it with master links carried expressly for that purpose.
“The Ukegawa Brothers are pretty good,” Connell said. “They don’t do things like bulldoze the roads so we can’t get through.” Then again, he added, a cooperative attitude is in any farmer's interest. “If we hit any farmer every day we could drive him out of business, no trouble. But you gotta be fair with these people.” The crackling voice of the helicopter pilot radioing from overhead interrupted with a report of a crew of about thirty field hands working on one of the distant unseen hillsides. Immediately inside the farm gates, the green- and cream-colored fleet accelerated, and Connell gripped the wheel of his Ram-charger intently. The farm's dirt roads climb and plunge like a roller coaster. Racing over them at forty miles an hour provides the kind of thrill that some people pay money to experience.
Clouds of fine brown dust rose out from the wheels. “The ranchers do complain about the dust. They say it causes a type of spider to get on the crops,” Connell commented over the roar of his engine. ‘‘So unless we're actually in pursuit of someone, we do drive slow. But once a run has started, we have priorities, and spiders aren’t it.”
Around us in all directions, fields of growing tomato plants colored the hills a deep emerald. If you ’re a city dweller who gets his vegetables from the local Safeway or, at best, a backyard garden, the sheer size of a large commercial farm comes as something of a shock. It’s easy to forget just how abundant the land here can be. ‘‘San Diego County produces more dollars per acre than any other place I know about,” says Charley Woods, the head of the local farm bureau. Two factors account for this: the excellent weather here and the fact that the crops grown here are relatively quite expensive. Whereas an alfalfa field in the Midwest might generate only eighty to a hundred dollars per acre per year, San Diego County farmers earn from $3000 to $12,000 per acre per year with crops such as strawberries, avocados, and flowers. Woods points out that out of the 5200 counties in the United States, San Diego County ranks twentieth in agricultural production. On an area of just 85,000 acres, local farmers last year produced more than $445 million dollars' worth of crops. To put that in context. Imperial County, which ranks as one of the top seven or eight counties in the nation, produced $775 million worth of crops — but required 500,000 acres to do so. "We’re big business,” Woods says, “one of the biggest businesses in this county.” (Agriculture ranks fourth after manufacturing, tourism, and the military.)
Out on an operation the size of the Ukegawas’, with hundreds and hundreds of acres in all directions, the numbers begin to make some sense. All at once, it becomes clear why the Border Patrol can’t simply stake out the farms and round up all the illegal farmworkers. Catching people on this rolling landscape is nothing like raiding a factory, for instance, where entrances can be sealed and the captives processed at leisure. Here an illegal alien may be able to spot the agents a mile away. Then the alien can run in any direction on the compass — away from the roads over which the agent’s vehicle is traveling. At some point the Border Patrol agent has to abandon his car and take off on foot, scrambling over boulders and across ravines and down rows of tomato plants that easily can reach a man’s waist. By the time the chase reaches this stage, Connell says his agents usually catch their targets, but it is time-consuming work.
In the distance, Connell and I watched two Mexicans attempting their escape, diminished by the distance to the size of cartoon characters. A moment later, Connell pulled up next to another paddy wagon already occupied by three Mexicans. Stepping down from his vehicle, the chief surveyed the commotion all around him. “I love this work!” he exclaimed to me. “What other job pays you for jogging? You get to keep fit. No heart attacks. You get to come out here with a helicopter.” Even the aliens are pleasant, Connell said. “I like the aliens, myself. It’s not like you are dealing with rapists or murderers or something. You don't deal with an element that's repulsive. Some of these aliens are the nicest guys in the world!” A few moments later, we watched one of the agents shepherd two short men in dusty clothing over to the waiting van. Connell directed my attention to the high cheekbones and Indian features of the captives. “Those guys there are pure Oaxacans. The reason the [farm] foremen like ’em is that, Jesus, they’re hard workers. They’re tenacious little workers. They kind of stay within themselves, but that little guy there will work harder in one week than I will in a year.”
By the time the caravan once again pulled out onto Black Mountain Road, only twenty-seven Mexicans had been captured — fewer than, two per agent. But it was still early in the morning, and now we headed west toward Interstate 5. I asked Connell what would happen to the money owed the field hands we had arrested; earlier, back at the station in El Cajon, the chief had made a point of telling me how his men always made sure that apprehended aliens received the wages owed to them. Although the Border Patrol agents can’t compel farmers to pay, they can and do report failures to pay to the state department of labor. “Actually, nine out of ten aliens claim that they don’t have any pay [due them],” he replied. “And the reason is, they have a pretty good idea they’ll be back in a few days.”
We turned north onto Interstate 5 and within minutes were passing the Encinitas Boulevard turnoff. Just a block or so from the freeway lies the Encinitas Town and Country Shopping Center, which Connell refers to as one of the biggest “open staging areas” in the county. After about six every morning, the Mexicans drift into the parking lot there, waiting for the landscapers, the apartment managers, the farmers seeking willing laborers eager to earn the minimum wage, or a bit more. As they wait for such pickups, the Mexicans mill about in small clusters, under trees and lamp posts, outside the Happy Donut House tucked into the far southeast comer of the plaza. From past experience they expect the Border Patrol to show up daily, often around eight; the embankment out in back of the donut shop is worn bare by the traffic of fleeing aliens.
On this morning, however, Connell and his troops had another destination, farther north. At the Poinsettia exit in Carlsbad, the caravan pulled off and regrouped to discuss strategy for storming the next target — another major Ukegawa Brothers field just down Palomar Airport Road, the next freeway exit to the north. The Border Patrol agents were milling around smoking and gossiping, when a northbound freight train appeared on the Santa Fe tracks to the west. Connell stiffened like a hunting dog on the scent of a bird, scanning the train for silhouettes clinging to the boxcars. “There’s a group of at least three of ’em!” one of his men cried, pointing. Soon the Border Patrol agents were hooting and cursing with frustration, as one human barnacle after another came into view, at least thirty Mexicans in all. Itchy for action, the caravan got under way again, racing toward the next Ukegawa property.
Connell told me that he sends small teams of agents to this place two or three times a week, but usually they don’t get beyond the packing house just inside the property gates. Within the packing house alone they usually can find enough undocumented workers to fill a Ram-charger to capacity. On this morning, the surprise arrival of an entire migra fleet sent the packing house into a paroxysm of activity, with workers streaming out of the sheds, dodging the screeching trucks and vans. Amid the chaos, Connell noted one long-haired young Anglo supervisor speed away in a pickup truck, heading toward the fields. “He’s going to warn the crews,” Connell muttered. He reached for his radio microphone and urged his agents toward the fields.
As we jounced over the rutted roads, the voice of one of Connell’s men crackled in the cab of our truck. “If those guys don’t move, they might be legals,” the agent cautioned, referring to a distant work crew. On either side of us, strawberries glowing like bright red Christmas bulbs spilled out of the sides of rows of greenery; the fruit’s subtle scent wafted over the ground. “No, they’re moving,” the voice on the radio affirmed. “Let’s go!”
In an instant, the field that had been marked by the steady rhythms of the harvest burst into the frenzied, random commotion of billiard balls hit by a cue ball. Frightened workers, faceless in the distance, scattered, arms pumping. Connell gave chase to one in our vicinity, but time after time our way was blocked by tractors parked deliberately to impede passage and by furrows and trenches too deep to cross. “They all try to head for the [Agua Hedionda] lagoon,” Connell said, interpreting the scramble of the Mexicans around us. “There’s a lot of mesquite they can hide in. Also, they live there.”
He drove to a high embankment overlooking the lagoon and parked. Making his way down the steep hillside, Connell led me through a narrow pathway to what looked like a pile of trash, only vaguely reminiscent of any human dwelling. Nonetheless, Connell seized a sort of door within the pile and yanked it open. “I think this has been abandoned,” he said.
He continued down the bank, picking his way through the heavy underbrush and stepping gingerly around human droppings. Suddenly we found ourselves in a clearing that obviously had been inhabited that day. Over a crude charcoal stove we found a pan containing a few spoonfuls of congealed beans. Nearby, on a wooden crate, sat a box of Nutrigrain cereal. “This is a pretty good place,” Connell grunted, pointing to a shed neatly constructed out of tomato stakes. Next to it, toothbrushes hung from the twigs of a tree. Inside the shed were primitive beds, a Polaroid camera, items of clothing. “There’s a woman living here. Children too,” Connell said, pointing to the telltale items of clothing. “That’s very unusual.” He turned and began to climb back up the hillside out of the camp via another pathway, but halfway up it Connell froze. Farther up, directly within the agent’s line of sight, a Mexican man huddled as if trying to make himself invisible. Connell bounded up to him and then caught sight of a flash of clothing within the brush. “ Vengan!” he called to the hidden figures; when nothing happened, he repeated the order to come, this time bellowing.
Out crept the Mexican man's wife, two little boys, and a girl dressed in a miniature Chargers’ running suit, her black hair fixed in two small, neat braids. Within moments Connell had herded the family into one of the wagons half-filled with workers captured in the fields. “It's kinda sad when you see kids like that,” Connell said. “They don't know what's happening. To them it’s just a game.” He iterated how unusual it was to find a woman other than a prostitute inside the alien camp. Connell says his men visit the camps, which they call “hooch communities,” fairly often, engaging in what they refer to as “hooching operations” — sweeps through the hidden colonies. Connell served in Vietnam, where the term “hooch” was used to refer to the primitive Vietnamese dwellings, and the Border Patrol chief says the local versions often remind him of those war years.
Later, on yet another extensive farm off Lake Boulevard in Oceanside belonging to another of the big local Japanese farming families, Connell led me almost eagerly to a different type of colony, this one a veritable town, deserted in midday. It would be nearly impossible to see this odd community from the air, fashioned as it is in a canyon bottom and sheltered by thick, aging trees. It is a place built of scraps and imagination. The humblest shelters are little more than trenches dug in the dirt and covered with a section of cardboard. The Border Patrol agents call these “spiders’ nests” — more jargon from Vietnam. Other dwellings reveal careful work and planning. One common component is the big cardboard tubes around which comes the plastic used to cover many crops in the fields; once the plastic is removed, the Mexicans transform the discarded tubes into center beams. They use tomato stakes as frames for cardboard walls, and then they waterproof the cardboard by covering it with the plastic sheeting filched from the farmers. They cut pieces of rubber tire to use as hinges on the cardboard doors.
“Look at this. It's a shower,” Connell called. Over the dirt, someone had constructed a scanty framework of wooden slats for the bather to stand upon; rising out of them was a single piece of white PVC pipe somehow connected to the irrigation supply in the fields. Connell led me to communal kitchens where primitive grills set in the ground serve as stoves, and paper bags suspended from the ceilings are the only cupboards. We passed one clearing where someone had suspended two wooden swings from a mature tree. Nearby, thick gray cobwebs dangled from the limbs of a plastic Christmas tree, and a skinny cat picked its way through the garbage. Dungarees and faded T-shirts lay spread out on bushes, drying stiffly. But despite such evidence of minimal housekeeping, garbage was the victor here, garbage in its ugliest incarnation, that of soggy, stinking heaps of smashed eggshells and broken plastic, crumpled beer cans, and unidentifiable waste.
“When you come down here to hooch this place, if you don't have a dozen men, you’re wasting your time,” Connell asserted. He explained that the residents scatter too effortlessly. Connell added that he dislikes sending men into the colonies late at night for two reasons: first, because of the danger of aliens mistaking the Border Patrol for robbers, and thus reacting in violent self-defense. Second, Connell says the U.S Attorney's office in San Diego is currently investigating the question of whether the aliens might have some reasonable “expectation of privacy,” an expectation that might oblige the Border Patrol to use a search warrant. “Of course if everyone runs, that falls into the category of ‘hot pursuit,' and in that instance we don't need any search warrant.”
Not every farmworker in the county lives in this kind of squalor. Some farmers and ranchers do provide their workers with housing such as trailers. But these employers run a special risk. According to one federal law, it's a felony to “harbor an illegal alien.” Although the law is not enforced very frequently, local Border Patrol agents do invoke it every now and then — as occurred last September when Connell and his men captured 175 Mexican workers one day at the San Luis Rey Downs horse-training center in Bonsall and charged the trainers with felonies because “they were letting them |the aliens] live in the tack rooms," according to Connell. Later, the defendants were allowed to plead guilty to “aiding and abetting the entry of an illegal alien,” a misdemeanor.
I asked Connell if he couldn't return and arrest just as many illegal aliens at the Bonsall track today. “Yeah.” he answered. “I've got an informant up there who tells me what’s going on, and he says the numbers (of illegal alien employees) are just about what they were before the raid. But the thing is, now very few of the trainers will let the aliens sleep in the tack rooms anymore. They’re out in hooches.”
That the raid had driven the aliens from better to worse conditions didn’t seem to strike Connell as being the least bit ironic. Instead the border patrol agent directs his reproach at the farmers and ranchers who hire the Mexicans in the first place, and at the American public, which turns its back on the illegal workers’ plight. “It’s an intolerable situation to have those aliens living up there like animals!” Connell exclaimed. He speculated that maybe the public really doesn’t know about those conditions — or maybe people know but turn a blind eye in exchange for the cheap produce that the aliens make possible.
“The thing you always hear from the landscapers is that they can't get Americans to take the jobs,” the Border Patrol agent continued. “But that’s a lot of crap! Those farmers have been getting away with murder out there, using a labor force which comes to them, which costs them nothing in the way of transportation or housing or anything.” Connell thinks if instead of hiring Mexicans, farmers went down to the unemployment offices and got their workers there, the farmers' profit margins might go down and the price of food might rise, but those inconveniences would be well worth it.
It's a suggestion that chokes local farmers. Apocryphal stories abound about this farmer or that farmer who tried to hire out-of-work Anglos only to see the entire worthless crew sitting out the afternoon in the shade, later demanding to be paid. Charley Woods at the farm bureau says there even was a formal program inaugurated under Governor Jerry Brown, specifically designed to get state unemployment offices to supply the farmer’s labor needs. “It didn't work,” Woods says flatly.
Farmers claim it’s even difficult to find Anglos willing to take supervisorial farm jobs. One Escondido avocado rancher and manager told me he has been unable to hire managers at a wage of $2000 a month. “It’s a demanding job. I like it, but most men complain about the loneliness and the difference in lifestyle. They have some romantic view of the rural life. But it’s not romantic at all. It’s lots of hard work.” When it comes to the actual picking, for which this rancher pays the minimum wage of $3.35 per hour, the rancher says, “You have to be hungry to do this type of work. There’s no doubt about it.”
The avocado rancher went further, echoing a theme one hears frequently on San Diego County farms these days — namely, that you not only have to be hungry, but probably you also have to have virtually no other choices about where to work. If the much-debated Simpson-Mazzoli bill actually becomes law later this year, the avocado rancher thinks most of his twenty or so men might gain legal status, since many of them have worked on the Escondido ranch for years, vacationing at their homes in Jalisco and Michoacan in Mexico for only two to three months per year. If they become legal residents, “What’s going to keep them from going to Detroit and earning eight dollars an hour?” the rancher frets.
Local ranchers and farmers who want their laborers readily and cheaply obviously don’t have much objectivity when it comes to the subject of whether illegal Mexican migrants are vital to the San Diego economy. But a more unbiased evaluation of that question has been attempted by at least one source, a local consulting firm hired by the County of San Diego four years ago. Joseph Nalven explains that his firm, the Community Research Associates, took a look at the overall effect of undocumented immigrants on San Diego County’s economy, including the question of whether illegal aliens were taking away agricultural jobs from legal residents.
To answer the question, Nalven and his coworkers interviewed 219 out-of-work Americans at unemployment offices throughout the county, asking them whether they would take various jobs, including farm labor, at several different wages. They found that thirty-six percent of the unemployed said they wouldn’t work as a laborer on a farm no matter what the pay. Forty percent said that to take such work they would have to earn an average of $5.31 an hour (during the course of the study, the minimum wage went from $2.90 an hour up to $3.10 an hour, while wages prevailing in the local agricultural industry at that time ranged from $3.10 to $3.75 an hour). Only fifteen percent of the people surveyed said they would accept a farmworker’s job at the minimum wage, and ten percent said they would take such a job for $2.50 an hour, less than the minimum wage. Based on these responses, the consulting firm used an elaborate model to calculate that if all the illegal aliens then working on local farms suddenly vanished overnight, from fifty to sixty-two percent of their jobs would go unfilled.
There were drawbacks to this conclusion, however, as the consulting firm disclosed in a follow-up study published two years ago. The first study had made several important assumptions, including the notion that farmers would not pay higher wages to attract new workers if all their undocumented workers suddenly disappeared. But Nalven and his co-workers began wondering how realistic this assumption really was. To answer that question, they directed their attention away from the potential work force and toward the employers, asking local farmers what would happen if they had to sustain a twenty-five percent increase in labor costs. At first glance, the farmers’ responses seemed to support strongly the idea that illegal aliens are crucial to the local agricultural industry. Nearly two-thirds of the farmers said that they would certainly go out of business if confronted with even a twenty-five percent cost increase.
But several other aspects to the farming scene that came to light during the second study gave the authors pause. For one thing, they noted the dramatic difference between farmers in the North County and those in the South Bay. Whereas the percentage of illegal aliens among North County farmworkers is widely acknowledged to approach one hundred percent, Nalven estimates that the percentage for the South Bay only ranges from thirty to forty percent. Many more Border Patrol agents patrol the South Bay, and — even more important — the fiat fields near the border preclude easy escape from raids, unlike the hilly land in the north. Whatever the explanation for the difference between the two areas, the question arises: if South Bay farmers can somehow find legal workers to pick their crops, why couldn’t farmers in the north do likewise? Nalven and his coworkers found that nonunion wages in the south run about seven and one-half percent more than they do in the north, and unionized South Bay farms pay about twenty-one percent more (excluding benefits) than North County farmers — but the South Bay wages still fall below the levels at which farmers countywide estimated they would be driven out of business. Besides the differences in the North and South County labor pools, the researchers also learned that in the past, San Diego farmers supplemented their labor forces with experienced agricultural workers imported from Imperial County during certain times of the year. They learned, too, that local farmers seem to show a strong preference for undocumented workers, and at times have fired legal residents to replace them with the more tractable illegals.
Confronted with this mishmash of conflicting information, the study's authors hedged. Local farmers probably could find more legal workers than they would like to admit, the study seems to conclude. But it’s possible that “some” need for guest workers “may” exist.
Mention guest worker programs and most local farmers think of the bracero program, which brought between four and five million Mexicans to American fields between the years of 1942 and 1964. Soon, however, the phrase may have a new meaning. Under both the House and Senate versions of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill (passed by the Senate last year and by the House last month), local farmers would be able to import foreign workers legally to help harvest their crops. In the Senate version, the farmers would have to request such workers twenty days before they were needed, while only three days' notice would be required under the House bill.
But so many questions obscure the immigration bill that it makes it hard' even to think about its consequences. Probably the biggest question is whether the bill will become law. Despite the fact that both the House and Senate have passed versions of the bill, a compromise version must be ratified by both bodies. Considering the hot debate and the recent close vote in the House, it's still possible that the bill could stall during this final phase.
And if it does pass, even if it does allow farmers to obtain guest workers within three days, would San Diego fanners take advantage of those provisions when they have a limitless supply of bureaucracy-free labor on their doorstep? For years, U.S. farmers have been able to import guest workers after an eighty-day waiting period — a program that has been shunned by California growers. Incentive for local growers to import legal guest workers might come from new employer sanctions likely to be included in any final version of the Simpson-Mazzoli law. But it might not; California has had an employer sanction law on its books for more than a dozen years, but not a single person has ever been convicted under it. The breach between what lawmakers ordain and what actually happens can be wide.
I got some insight into that maxim when I talked to Gary Stephany, the county’s chief administrator of environmental health services. When the brouhaha over the McGonigle Canyon illegal alien camps broke out five years ago and the board of supervisors declared that it would wipe out the infestations of illegal aliens throughout the North County, the task of carrying out this dictum fell to Stephany. He says it took about a year to get an enforcement program organized, and even then the county only could spare one enforcement officer who devoted, time to the work throughout the six or so months when local harvests are heaviest. Stephany says that worker tried several different approaches. “One year we went through the agriculture department and got a list of farms. We'd try to hit the areas where we knew we'd had problems in the past.” Another year, the county inspector went out in the company of Border Patrol agents.
Stephany says the problem that bedeviled the program wasn’t that the inspector couldn't find the camps. He would find them, locate the property owners, and serve them notice that they had thirty days to clean up the mess. “A lot of times the owners would claim they didn’t know the camps were there, and in some cases that was true. You have a lot of absentee landlords, plus these camps are usually hidden in the brush on the property.” Stephany says that, once notified, every owner complied with the clean-up order. The problem was that it soon became clear the Mexican occupants were simply moving a few miles away. “It was like putting a pitcher of water on a fire,” Stephany says. “It was a continual battle and we weren’t getting anywhere.” In May of 1983, when his budget was cut, he firmly recommended the elimination of the inspection program, a suggestion to which the supervisors quietly assented.
When I visited Armando Lopez on his seven rented acres off North River Road in Oceanside, Lopez seemed oblivious to the machinations of county and federal government. He said he hadn't heard anything about the Simpson-Mazzoli legislation. All his attention instead seemed directed to the price of zucchini in Los Angeles, upon which was riding his future and that of his wife and six children.
A youthful man of thirty-six, Lopez was bom in a small town in Sinaloa, Mexico, and moved with his parents first to Sonora and then to Tijuana in the late 1950s. There the famify lived for about five years, but Lopez says in those days one could get papers authorizing residency in the U.S. in just two to three months, which is what his family did. Lopez was about fifteen when he began picking avocados here for ninety cents an hour. He worked in the groves for about three years, then got his driver’s license and moved on to higher-paying jobs. By last year, he was working as foreman of a 550-acre avocado ranch, supervising a crew of eighteen workers, almost all illegal. “It’s the only way the company gets a little bit of money,’’ Lopez said. He says he had held the foreman’s job for three years, and was earning $1500 a month, when he received word that he was going to be replaced with another (legal) worker who would earn only $1200 a month. That’s when he decided the time had come to try running his own farm.
Lopez borrowed $10,000 and began looking for land to lease. Over in Carlsbad he learned that the rent on some property went as high as $350 an acre per month, so he felt good when he found the Oceanside land for $165 an acre. “It’s not good, but it’s not too bad. Here the ground is good and it’s not too cold.” With no experience in truck farming, Lopez says he was talked into planting the zucchini by a knowledgeable friend. After preparing the ground, Lopez planted in early March, then began the nerve-wracking vigil over his sprouts. “I be there every day, looking at the plants,’’ he recalls.
He says one day a group of men, all friends and relatives from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico, showed up on his property, and when he hired the crew and began working with them, he was pleased by the men’s industrious and trustworthy attitudes. On the recent morning when Lopez and I talked, most of the men sat within a shed located near the fields; Lopez explained that although he pays the men $3.25 an hour for eight hours of work, the crew typically has to spend several hours a day waiting for the vegetable to reach the proper stage of ripeness. The farmer led the way to one of the nearby rows of plants. The squash bushes rise only about a foot off the ground. Here and there buttery yellow flowers waved in the morning breeze. Many of the zucchini were only finger size, but Lopez asserted that the vegetable usually grows up to three to four inches a day. The ripe zucchini amidst the leaves glowed a shiny green. Lopez says there’s no way this work could be mechanized, since every plant must be checked every day.
He says when his harvest began forty-five days after the seeds were first planted, he learned to his consternation that the market in Los Angeles was paying only three dollars per box (with each box containing at least eighteen pounds of zucchini). At that point, with a crew of ten workers, Lopez says he was gathering about 200 boxes a day. “You think that’s $600 a day. But I gotta pay seventy-three cents for each of the boxes. I pay the seller’s commission in L.A. I have the expenses of the truck. So it’s not a very good business.”
All the worrisome figures seemed to dance through his mind. “I pay a lot of money every week. Boxes. People. Water. For this seven acres I pay $400 for water last month. This month probably $500.” He had to fertilize the land three times. “The first time it cost me $287, the second time $328, and the third it was 300-something.” He had to buy 40,000 feet of hose, with which the zucchini are watered every other day.
By the third week of June, the price of the vegetable had risen to eight dollars a box, but the harvest had fallen off, so that Lopez and his team, reduced to seven men, were only able to gather about sixty boxes a day. “Maybe I’ll break even,” the farmer said, calculating his earnings for the season. “But I don’t know.”
I asked if he had considered trying to hire legal workers, and he answered gravely. “The ones who are legal want five dollars an hour, and we don’t, make that kind of money. No way.” Lopez told me not to take offense, but that no American would want to pick crops; in all his years in San Diego argiculture, he had never seen an Anglo picking avocados or any other crop. “People from here want to make $85 to $100 a day,” he shrugged. He said he certainly understood that; he’d like to make that kind of money too. But he’d settle for making less if he could simply run his own farm. He offered a familiar prediction of what would happen if all the undocumented workers were chased from San Diego. “All this go down. Because you see, nobody want to do it. No strawberries. No tomatoes. No squashes.”
A few days later, not far from Lopez’s land, I made my way onto a big tomato farm just west of Rancho Bernardo. It was after six in the evening and the descending sun colored the hills with a honey light. A fine mist seemed to rise from the earth, softening the edges of things, veiling the onset of evening. Only the rustle of an evening breeze through the rows of plants interrupted the stillness. Acre after acre of tomatoes stretched toward the horizon, with no human in sight. It was as if Lopez’s vision had already come true, as if all the fruit on the vines had been forgotten.
Then a distant movement caught my eye. About a mile away, along a ribbon of dirt road, a tiny figure appeared. I moved toward it and soon I could discern a man . . . and then several men behind him . . . and more coming into view over the ridge of a hill — a band of farmworkers making their way down the road after their day’s work. They strolled along the road, unhurried, many carrying white plastic buckets filled with irrigation water from the fields. Soon I saw that they were heading for a clearing where a catering truck had parked, and still more men gathered, and portable radios emitted the dolorous strains of Mexican music. The men dawdled in the clearing, gossiping and loafing, eating their enchiladas and enjoying the sunset, figures in a mirage which I knew would soon once again disintegrate into shadows and empty fields.