Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural California," is a six-chapter book published by the Urban Institute Press that summarizes the papers presented at conferences in 1995 and 1996 that examined how immigration was changing the face or composition of the communities that house many of California's 800,000 to 900,000 farm workers. Cities such as Parlier and Guadalupe include some of the highest percentages of residents in poverty, the highest shares of immigrant farm workers and some of the fastest population growth in rural America. At the same time, the value of the commodities sold and of the farm land used to produce them has reached record levels.
The hypothesis motivating the conferences was that California risks the re-creation of rural poverty through immigration to fill seasonal farm jobs. In the past, this rural poverty was "cured" as farm workers returned to much as Mexico or migrated to urban areas.
Today, more Mexican-born farm workers seem to be settling in the US with their families, in response to US legalization programs and the restructuring of Mexico's rural economy, but their low levels of education seem to lock them into low-wage US labor markets, so that neither returning to Mexico nor economic mobility with geographic mobility in the US seems likely. As a result, some of the highest rates of welfare dependency are in the agricultural counties of California, where unemployment rates are also high. In the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley, for example, 29 percent of the residents of Fresno (761,000 population), 30 percent of Merced (199,000) and 25 percent of Tulare (362,000) county residents were on public assistance in 1996. At the same time, unemployment rates were in double digits, even in the peak spring and summer months.
Despite high unemployment, and welfare recipients looking for jobs, farmers would like to see a guest worker program introduced. In support of easier access to guest workers, the president of the California Farm Bureau testified December 7, 1995 that "the existence of unemployed workers, future welfare reform, and legalization of spouses and children of US citizenss and permanent resident aliens will not provide a solution to agricultural work force needs," i.e., agriculural employers have already looked at US sources of farm workers, and concluded that they wil not be satisfactory farm workers.
Putting welfare recipients to work in agricultural areas may not be easy. Many welfare recipients are mothers with young children, while easy entry jobs in agricultural areas tend to be farm jobs that may require lifting or climbing trees. In many central California counties, the labor force is growign faster than the number of additional jobs. Two examples highlight the challenges faced by rural communities whose populations are increasing by three to five percent a year as rural Mexicans settle in them.
In Parlier, a city of 10,400 about 20 miles southeast of Fresno, the population is over 97 percent Hispanic and the job pyramid is very steep: the best jobs are those in government, where wages are not influenced by local conditions. Over two-thirds of the local work force in summer consists of immigrant farm workers, and the second-best jobs are in the farm worker service economy, providing migrant and seasonal workers with housing, rides to work, meals and other services, often for cash wages in an underground economy.
Virtually everyone is poor, but the receipt of welfare benefits is very uneven, since many local residents are not eligible for benefits. Parlier is in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, an eight-county area that produces most US table grapes, raisins, wine grapes, tree fruits such as peaches and nectarines, and field crops such as cotton and alfalfa hay. Coastal towns such as Guadalupe (6300 population) and Watsonville (37,000 population) are in areas where land is more expensive and higher value crops such strawberries dominate production. In these coastal communities, housing can be scarce and expensive, so when the need for farm workers increases in step with production (California's strawberry production tripled between 1975 and 1995), local residents often complain about farm workers crowding into single family homes or the garages behind them.
Even as the face of rural communities changes, political power often remains in the hands of the minority non-Hispanic population. The mayor of Santa Maria, Guadalupe's neighboring city of 70,000, in 1992 won re-election after complaining that Mexican immigrants are "destroying Santa Maria's neighborhoods by crowding into rental houses, drinking beer outdoors and urinating in yards, working on junk cars all over the place and draining the state's social and medical programs." (RMN, April 1995) The 1995 conference included a field trip to Watsonville, the picturesque "Frozen Food Capital of the World" 90 miles south of San Francisco.
Watsonville, 60 percent Hispanic, offered workers with little education good unionized jobs in plants that froze broccoli and other vegetables until the mid-1980s. But Americans' diets have shifted from frozen to fresh vegetables and many of the frozen food plants in Watsonville shifted production to Mexico to take advantage of lower costs, eliminating 5,000 jobs. Employment in the Watsonville area increased despite the closure of frozen food plants because strawberry acreage increased. Most former frozen food workers do not want to return to the fields, so most of the new strawberry jobs are taken by newcomers from Mexico.
California in 1996 produced 1.3 million pounds of strawberries worth $594 million, triple the production and four times the value, of the mid-1970s. The average American consumed about six pounds of strawberries in 1996, double the per capita consumption of the late 1960s. In 1997, Watsonville is once again in the news because the United Farm Workers has made the area's strawberry industry the focal point of its "Five cents for fairness" campaign, the effort to get local strawberry growers to increase the piece rate wages paid to strawberry harvesters by $0.05 per pint, or $0.60 per 12-pint tray. Most workers currently receive $4.50 to $5 per hour, plus $0.75 per 12-pint tray.
Chapter three of the book explores the associations among farm employment, immigration, poverty and welfare in 65 rural California towns with a total population of 450,840 in 1990. The analysis suggests that immigrants with little education are drawn to rural communities by jobs in labor-intensive agriculture, but most of the economic benefits they generate accrue outside their communities, saddling them with service costs, but not the tax dollars needed to provide services (farmers rarely live in the same towns that house their workers). Indeed, a one-person increase in farm employment was associated with a 0.67-person increase in welfare use, suggesting an additional annual welfare cost of $954 per farm job. Since farm workers in California in 1990 earned an average $7,320, each farm job was associated with a welfare payment equivalent to approximately 13 percent of average farm earnings.
The book includes a discussion of five changes in federal policy that are likely to affect the prospects for integrating immigrants in rural California, for example, efforts to reduce illegal immigration; restrictions on immigrant access to means-tested welfare benefits; shifting some farm worker specific federal programs to states with block grants; altering the level of labor law and immigration enforcement in rural areas; and reducing funding for legal services programs that have acted as advocates for farm workers and the rural poor.
Chapter six discusses three types of policies that affect the influx of immigrant farm workers and their prospects for integrating in rural California: enforcement, social services and development in Mexico. In each case, the jury is still out on the effects of these policies. For example, more effective border controls might reduce the influx of unauthorized immigrants, but they might also decrease the current level of seasonal returns to Mexico, since re-entry would be more difficult. If effective border and interior controls led to labor shortages, enforcement might also, paradoxically, lend support to farm employer calls for a guest worker program.
Reducing the access of immigrants to welfare benefits may push more immigrants into the labor force, but the larger impact may come from time limits on benefits, which could push more US citizens into the seasonal farm work force and highlight just how far these labor markets have slipped behind other US labor markets, much as the arrival of Oakies and Arkies in California fields in the 1930s led to Grapes of Wrath exposes. The federal government currently provides targeted services to migrant and seasonal farm workers and their dependents that cost about $600 million per year, equivalent to 10 percent of these workers annual earnings (Philip Martin and David Martin. 1994.
The Endless Quest: Helping America's Farm Workers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press). The justification for these programs when they were begun in the 1960s was that state residency requirements prevented interstate migrants who followed the ripening crops from obtaining access to Great Society programs. Today, there are relatively few follow the crop migrants and there is pressure to fold farm worker specific programs into state block grants. Will block grants lead once again to the neglect of farm workers?
The California farm labor market is one of the most regulated in the US--it is sometimes said that hiring a migrant farm worker is second only to hiring a child actor in complexity. However, the gap between the theoretical protection available to farm workers and the reality of the labor markets in which they work is widening, and the major factor that assures self compliance--labor shortages -- has not occurred for the past two decades. This leaves federal and state labor law enforcement agencies, legal services, and unions as compliance officers fighting against an array of contractors, crew bosses, and raiteros who seem to be one step ahead of the law, or with so few assets that, even if they are caught, they go out of business. Enforcement, in other words, leads to the replacement of one risk buffer middleman with another, and does not change the structure of the labor market in which the inherent risks involved in the biological production process are shifted back to the weakest links, immigrant farm workers.
This book does not offer solutions to the paradox of poverty amid plenty. It suggests that immigrant farm workers will continue to dominate the farm labor market and rural poverty will perpetuate the dream of many farm workers that, next year, they will not have to be seasonal farm workers. Taylor, J. Edward, Philip Martin, and Michael Fix. 1997.
Poverty Amid Prosperity: Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural California. Washington, DC. Urban Institute Press. With contributions by Rafael Alarcon, Andrew Alvarado, John Borrego, Victor Garcia, Brian Haley, JoAnn Intili, Ed Kissam, Fred Krissman, Elias Lopez, Bert Mason, Robert Palacio, Juan Palerm, Jeffrey Passel, Refugio Rochin, David Runsten, Pat Savella, Don Villarejo, and Carol Zabin are summarized. Available for $21.50 from 800-462-6420 or http://www.urban.org Rural Migration News Home