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A 'Guest Worker' Program for California's Farms

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A 'Guest Worker' Program for California's Farms

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A 'Guest Worker' Program for California's Farms

A 'Guest Worker' Program for California's Farms

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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California is home to one of the largest populations of illegal immigrants, sparking constant debate among citizens and politicians about how to handle undocumented workers in the state. One idea introduced by the Bush administration is a "guest worker" program that allows immigrants to work temporarily in the United States. Madeleine Brand travels to the strawberry fields of Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles, to get reaction to the Bush plan from a farmer, an immigrant and a citizen fed up with current policy.

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Illegal immigration, the Senate debates various proposals next month including President Bush's a temporary guest worker program. Immigrants would have to return home permanently after six years.

BRAND: California is one of the states most affected by illegal immigration in both good and bad ways. Just up the coast from Los Angeles we got a snap shot of what people think of President Bush's idea from a citizen fed up with the current policy, from a farmer, and from an illegal immigrant working the strawberry fields.

In Oxnard, a small coastal community near Santa Barbara, are miles and miles of farmland. The mild weather means almost everything thrives here. There's celery, broccoli, oranges, strawberries. Twenty eight year old Petra Soto(ph) has been a strawberry picker since she snuck across the border from Mexico eight years ago. It's a familiar story; she came from a poor village, pregnant, with her husband and young daughter. She begins her day at 7 o'clock in the morning and works till four in the afternoon bent over for much of the day picking strawberries one by one.

PETRA SOTO (Illegal Immigrant farm worker): (Through Translator) The most difficult part of the work for us is when it's raining. It rains and we're out there in the fields with boots with raincoats and we can't really walk, because we're sinking in the mud. We're afraid we'll slip and fall so it's really hard, really difficult.

BRAND: So how long do you think you can do this? How long do you plan on being out in the fields?

Ms. SOTO: Well I have no idea but this body is already very tired, because we're out there all year long. As soon as we finish a crop the next season's crop is ready to be picked. Our bodies are tired and we say we want a break but we can't take a break because, well my children, to get them ahead. All of my focus is on my children. They matter most to me.

BRAND: President Bush says his temporary Visa plan is for workers just like Petra Soto. He says he wants to encourage them to come out of the shadows and join mainstream society. But Soto doesn't think much of his offer. She says she probably wouldn't register as a temporary worker; she'd just take her chances and continue working here illegally.

SOTO: They shouldn't give us those six years they should give us legalization. I'm coming up on eight years living here and my children are already established in their schools. I want a better life for them so that they won't be out in the field like me.

SCOTT DEARDORF (Farmer): We grow celery, mixed lettuce, romaine, red leaf, green leaf.

BRAND: Scott Deardorf(ph) runs one of the few family farms left in Oxnard. He likes President Bush's proposal because he needs workers like Petra Soto now more than ever.

Mr. DEARDORF: We're harvesting celery right now and we are working long days just to keep up. Right now they're out in the field a good ten hours every day.

BRAND: Deardorf says there's a labor shortage these days with more undocumented workers going into construction or janitorial work. So what does he want from Washington? Well, he doesn't want any crackdown. That would mean even fewer workers. He likes the President's guest worker idea.

Mr. DEARDORF: They're here already and they're working. Give them some sort of status where they can continue working. Okay and their kids and continue going to school and they can pay their taxes and they can be a part of our society. They're not going to go back, so lets' deal with them. They're here now. They're not terrorists, they're not here to threaten us they're here to work.

BRAND: And without them he says his crops would go unpicked. True enough, native born Americans aren't interested in back breaking work that pays minimum wage, but what if Deardorf and other farmers paid more? Say $10 an hour? He'd probably attract more workers and says Philip Martin, a professor of agriculture economics at UC Davis it wouldn't make much of a difference in the price of vegetables in the supermarket.

Professor PHILIP MARTIN (Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC Davis): On a one dollar a head of lettuce the farmer gets nineteen cents, the farm worker gets six cents. Suppose wages were zero. Then you would theoretically pay ninety four cents instead of a dollar for a head of lettuce.

BRAND: But even a small increase in costs from higher wages might mean the difference between staying and going out of business for a family farm like Scott Deardorf's. And for big corporate farms it might mean outsourcing certain labor intensive crops like strawberries.

Prof. MARTIN: Singapore has basically no farms. People live and eat very well. The United Kingdom has relatively few farms and farm owners. So remember we tell Japan and Korea open up to American rice and beef because, you know you don't have to produce it at high cost at home you can trade and get it. I think it's hard to say that American's would go hungry if farm wages rose.

BRAND: But farming seems to be part of the American idea of itself.

Prof. MARTIN: We've just got done telling France that they should forget subsidizing French farmers because it's holding back the developing countries. And of course the French President said exactly what you just said; it's part of our heritage.

BRAND: Our heritage is of great concern to Diana Hull, she's President of the group Californians for Population Stabilization located just up the coast from Scott Deardorf's farm. Hull is against any proposal that offers amnesty, including President Bush's. She says guest worker programs like his only encourage more illegal immigrants to come and when time's up, they don't go home.

Dr. DIANA HULL, Ph.D (President, Californians for Population Stabilization): There's nothing that's going to increase the illegal immigration more than amnesty. We support every kind of surveillance that's technically feasible.

BRAND: She says the borders should be shut until we get a handle on the illegal immigrants who are already here. Estimated to be at least ten million.

Dr. HULL: We are a pro-choice group. We, we think that every person, every woman, every family has a right to decide the number of children that they want. Shouldn't a community for example, once you step out of your front door, you should be able to have some say so in how many people are in that community.

BRAND: Which she says is too large now. Sitting on her terrace over looking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, a fountain quietly gurgling. She complains of congested freeways, overcrowded schools, housing developments eating up open spaces. All that, Diana Hull says, is caused by immigration. Of course there are positive things too, a hot real estate market for example and a booming economy. It's estimated that each immigrant brings a net benefit to the economy of nearly ninety thousand dollars a year. But agriculture economist Philip Martin says by changing the way we think about immigration we'd help the economy even more. What if we don't admit the lowest skilled immigrants, immigrants like strawberry picker Petra Soto, but the highest skilled? That would mean more taxes paid by people earning higher salaries.

Prof. MARTIN: Then the best kind of people to take are young healthy well educated. If they have money that helps as well. I mean it doesn't take an economist to design an immigration policy that is most beneficial to people already here. You know the question is what is the best immigration policy depends on what you're trying to achieve with immigration policy. What are you trying to benefit people already here, are you trying to provide shelter for people fleeing persecution abroad, are you trying to provide a first step up?

BRAND: Well maybe it's all of those things, which can make for a pretty confusing immigration policy. That confusion is clear to immigrants like Petra Soto who see fences at the border, but help wanted signs just across it.

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