More than 70 percent of Hispanic voters supported President Obama last month. The results are putting Republicans on notice they must seriously court the nation's largest minority group if they want to occupy the White House again.
This week, Senate Democrats blocked Republicans from bringing up an immigration bill that passed the House last week. The legislation would have provided 55,000 visas a year to foreign graduates of U.S. colleges with masters and doctorate degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
House Republicans turned to the bill as a way to show Hispanics -- who deserted them in the election -- that they are serious about immigration reform. But the legislation met strong opposition from Democrats because it eliminated another visa program that benefits less-educated people -- particularly from Africa.
Nowhere are the stakes any higher than in California, where tougher immigration policy has yielded a dwindling supply of farmworkers. And as David Miller discovered last spring, immigration is far from a settled issue for growers hoping to harvest a mountain of vegetables in "The Nation's Salad Bowl".
A good share of the nation’s winter fruits and vegetables are grown on nearly 3 million acres of irrigated crop land in California’s Central Valley. Water and labor have a unique relationship in California. Without the water there are no crops. Without the labor, the crops would never leave the field.
In 2009, reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains caused a reduction in water to Central Valley farmers. The loss triggered an avalanche of unemployment that hit over 40 percent in some Valley communities.
Joe Del Bosque is a second generation farmer from Firebaugh, California. Del Bosque idled more than a third of his 2,200 acres during the drought, diverting precious water from vine-ripened fruits and vegetables to his fruit and nut trees.
Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque: We have had those cut backs for - for 20 years here in agriculture. So we understand them and we've kind of learned to roll with the punches. It is not easy when - if we had 2009 again in 2010 I may not be standing here. Because we could roll through one year but not through two.
But even if water allocations return to 100 percent, getting the fruits and vegetables out of the field remains a problem for Central Valley farmers. As immigration regulations have been tightened over the past few years, the number of people available to pick, process and pack fruits and vegetables has declined.
Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque: “Number one, closing the borders has affected our labor. Number two, fewer people are immigrating from south of the border into our area. And you know, number three is we have a government that can't seem to get together a - an immigration reform plan and we - we desperately need that. If we had a law here in California like - like Arizona, our fresh food and vegetable industry would be dead.”
The Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research agency, says there are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau believes there are nearly 2 million undocumented works in California Some of them are helping bring in the nearly $40 billion worth of fruits and vegetables produced in California farm fields annually. While the work is labor intensive, farmers in the region say they only need people for a limited time each year.
Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque: “… our demands for labor out here are seasonal. There are huge demands in July, August, and September. There is not enough people here to fill those demands. So we really need to have a guest worker program to bring a lot of people in legally, pick the crops, go back home. It is truly my belief that if we would have had this 30 or 40 years ago, we would not have the immigration problem that we have today.”
Daniel Jackson is an 8th generation farmer from Reedley, California. Jackson believes most of the immigrant workers he employs to pick and process the bounty from the families 4,000 acres of fruit trees want to earn money and return to their homes across the border.
Daniel Jackson, Family Tree Farms: “-- our labor force that we have is predominately, maybe, 99 percent Hispanic. A lot of these people are coming from other countries and we need immigration reform. We do. No doubt about it. And it seems like a very easy fix to me as a farmer that we have the technology available to be able to take some sort of card and - and - and be able to do a screening process in these other countries and bring people up here that are not criminals. They're not people wanting to take advantage of a system. They're just hard working, honest people. … bring them up and let them work here for 8-9 months and then they can be able to go back home because most of these people want to go back home.”
A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed more than 60 percent of Americans felt illegal immigrants should either be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship or stay as guest workers.
Opinions aside, Jackson is among the farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley, who have attempted to get unemployed American citizens in the area to help in the field during labor shortages.
Daniel Jackson, Family Tree Farms: “…we have gone to the unemployment offices before and asked for workers. And one day we needed 300 workers to come out and pick zucchinis for us and what ended up happening was, is they were very excited, they gave us all the applications, we were excited, the next day when we were ready to pick, ten people showed up.”
Manuel Cunha is president of the Nisei Farmers League, a San Joaquin Valley based farmer advocacy group with 1,100 members.
Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League: “U.S. workers will not work in this type of work. They refuse to work in it. The only way they're ever going to work in it, and God forbid that we go -- a real depression of 1929, then maybe people will realize that there is no more welfare; there is no more unemployment money. You want to eat? You got to work…”
During the immigration amnesty program in the 1980s, the Nisei Farmers League helped the Federal government process undocumented workers.
Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League: “So, we're - we're in a situation where we rely on our farm employees that are here in this state to have a job and to farm that land with our growers. So we need that labor but to do that we got to have the water. … They're not coming back here. What happens to that production? To the tree fruit, the grapes, the almonds, the walnuts, the vegetables? They all begin to start to dry up because at the end of the day I've got to have a workforce. And if I don't have an economic system of water, then I can't grow these crops. So then I might as well just turn this valley and other areas into urbanization and just build houses.”
Cunha, Jackson and Del Bosque are like many farmers in the region who believe the answer to the immigration problem in California requires cooperation among politicians on both sides of the aisle. But at the end of the day Del Bosque and others will continue to focus on things close at hand.
Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque: “…you know, our goal is to feed the nation.”
For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.