This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above. Visit TheWorld.org to view audio slideshow.
American farmers have long depended on immigrant labor. But some farmers say a steady supply of legal immigrants has become too unreliable. So they're moving to where many of the workers come from: Mexico.
Steve Scaroni has been growing lettuce in Arizona and California for 30 years. Four years ago, he started to expand to the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Today, half of his operation is south of the border.
Going to work with Scaroni is like spending a day with a super-caffeinated Wall Street trader: He yells, he bargains, he complains, he compliments. His office is his truck. He uses two cellphones, a hand radio, a walkie talkie, and an iPad for his e-mails. He's on one or two, even three devices at any given time, almost all the time, as he sells his lettuce and broccoli.
I spent two full days with Scaroni, from morning until night, to get a full sense of his operation. It's massive. There's a good chance the lettuce you eat for lunch or dinner was touched by Scaroni's workers in the U.S. or Mexico. His operation plants, harvests and processes 20 million servings each week. Much of his lettuce ends up in bags on the shelves of U.S. supermarkets.
"Between 50 and 75 trucks a week goes out of here to the United States," said Scaroni as he showed me his freezer operation. Huge bags of lettuce are sealed airtight and injected with liquid nitrogen for the long ride north.
It's a long way to haul lettuce, but there are clear advantages to working in Mexico. If there's bad weather in Arizona or California, Scaroni has a back-up crop. Also, in the United States, Scaroni says he pays field workers $9 to $10 an hour. In Mexico, he pays $12 to $15 a day.
Scaroni said he pays above the going wage. And he insists that he didn't move to Mexico just to save money on labor. He says when you factor in added transportation costs, Mexican taxes, and the hassles and costs of getting things like fertilizer on time in a foreign country… He said it's been a four-year headache and his Mexico operation still isn't profitable.
"I'm doing all this, I'm sleeping in a foreign country a lot of times away from my family because of the lack of a coherent immigration policy in the United States," said Scaroni. "I brought all this equipment to the United States. I have hundreds of thousands of dollars in just import costs to bring all my equipment down here. Why? Because I don't have enough legal labor in the United States. We're in a labor shortage crisis for legal immigrants."
That's the key word: Legal. Scaroni has a point.
"You might say around half of all farm workers are probably undocumented most of them are Mexicans, and others are Salvadorans, and Hondurans, quite a few Guatemalans," said agricultural economist Rick Mines. He designed the survey that the Department of Labor uses to estimate how many farm workers in the United States are documented vs. undocumented.
American farmers are required to check the paperwork of everyone they hire. The open secret is that many field workers use phony documents. Most large agribusiness operations hire workers through a contractor, or a middleman, so the farm is insulated from the hiring process. This look-the-other-way policy works for most big farmers. American farmers also aren't allowed to investigate the validity of a document.
But American farms that rely on illegal workers risk being temporarily shut down by raids or administrative enforcement. For Steve Scaroni, the hassles were enough to drive him south of the border.
For many farmers, though, Mexico isn't an option. Rick Mines said, "Most of the major crops – grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and peppers – are very sensitive to local growing conditions and to proximity to market, and so, these products are not that easy to shift."
The numbers are murky as to just how many American farmers are shifting work to Mexico. Most farmers don't want to talk about it. The California and Arizona organization Western Growers asked its 3,000 members in 2008 if they're growing crops in Mexico; only 25 members responded. Of those that did respond, they reported that they're hiring 22,285 people on farms in Mexico.
Steve Scaroni said he's speaking out because he's fed up with the system. He supports an immigration bill called "AgJOBS."
The legislation was a compromise between growers and labor after some 15 years of negotiations. AgJOBS would give farm workers more rights and provide a path to legal status. The bill would also make it easier for American farmers to bring in temporary immigrant workers.
Many Republicans in Congress are lining up against it calling it an amnesty for lawbreakers. This puts Scaroni at a boil.
"Now I'm a conservative, [but] I don't consider myself a Republican anymore because I think the Republican party is as big a part of the problem as the Democrats are, and especially on this immigration thing," said Scaroni. "All they [Republicans in Congress] do is block everything that tries to get passed. They never come up with a solution. So yes, I hold the Republican party responsible for why I had to move to Mexico to complete my American dream."
There is an alternative to moving to Mexico or importing immigrant farm labor: Hire Americans. California's official unemployment rate is more than 12 percent. Despite that, Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education, said Americans still don't want jobs in the field.
"There is no indication that if someone is laid off from a job in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, that they would pack up their family and move to the Central Valley to pick grapes. There's never been an example or tradition of that occurring," said Wong.
Wong adds that most Americans don't want to pick fruits and vegetables because it's hard, seasonal work that only pays around $8 an hour.
Steve Scaroni argues that he can't pay much more than that in the U.S. And he said he can't pay higher wages in Mexico either.
"We live in an international environment now," said Scaroni "They produce broccoli in China. They produce it in Guatemala, in Mexico. I mean, if we do produce it in the United States, we have to be able to produce it cost effectively. Or Mexico or Guatemala will knock us out of the marketplace. Because, like I said, at the end of the day the American consumer wants it cheap, clean, and perfect."
That may be true, but farm worker advocates argue that American growers paid low wages in the U.S. long before there was global competition.
As another year closes without immigration reform, American farmers remain in a bind. But the biggest losers appear to be the workers in the fields, doing back-breaking work for low wages, with little protection.
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