Shorthanded

Foreign pickers aren't getting through the post-9/11 barricades to harvest U.S. crops

McClung and many farmers he represents along the border strongly oppose a border wall -- which in Texas would span east to west from Brownsville to Laredo, Del Rio to Eagle Pass and El Paso to New Mexico -- calling it an insult to Mexico, a waste of money and a strain on their livelihoods.

These issues have put farmers in a rare adversarial position with the local leaders they helped get elected.

Carnes, the cabbage farmer in Uvalde, had always voted Republican in major contests until this year. Fed up with Texas Gov. Rick Perry for campaigning on border enforcement without also stressing the need for a guest-worker program, he reluctantly decided to cast his vote for Democratic long shot Chris Bell.

During the bracero program, more than four million Mexicans crossed the border...
Courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso
During the bracero program, more than four million Mexicans crossed the border...
...to work in agriculture.
Courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso
...to work in agriculture.

"I'm leaning to the other guy," Carnes says. "What's his name? Not Kinky but the other guy."


On a recent morning at Rio Queen, a citrus farm in the Rio Grande Valley, 18-year-old Americo Tobar sits a few feet away from the orange groves, filling out an employment application.

As a high-school junior, Tobar was suspended for fighting and never went back. Pressed by his family to earn some money, he is following his grandfather, father and uncles into the fields.

Tobar has heard all about the hardships of migrant life. How it's ten degrees hotter in the groves and the wind never blows. How the body strains under the weight of a 70-pound sack. And how the mind rebels the next morning when it's time to start all over again.

Tobar doesn't know if he'll ever go back to earn his degree. And he has no idea what he might be doing in ten or 20 years. But this much he knows for sure: "I no work in the fields forever. Just temporary."

The United Farm Workers of America estimates as much as 15 percent of the agricultural work force leaves the industry every year. Many go into construction, where wages are two or even three times higher. Others go into the hospitality and service industries, where the work is far less labor-intensive.

Diana Ramon, a labor recruiter, follows the onion harvest every year, traveling from farms in the Valley to Uvalde to Colorado. She hires about 900 field laborers a year, but estimates her work force lately has been cut in half.

"We've had to push extra hard on the labor we do have," says Ramon, who this year increased wages from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour and offered to reimburse workers for rent if they stayed the entire harvesting season. "Farmers are putting pressure on me to get workers, but there's no place to find them."

Farmers aren't supposed to hire illegals, but a loophole makes it easy to skirt the law. Employers must ask workers for documentation, but the law doesn't require them to verify its authenticity. Ramon admits she often spots phony IDs and Social Security cards but accepts them anyway.

Many of Ramon's most loyal and dependable workers are families. Kids must be older than 12 to join their parents in the fields, she says. But as the parents get older, they are less willing to travel. And their children are ascending to easier, often better-paying jobs.

"Nobody wants to do stoop labor," McClung says. "The children of migrants are very proud to work in a car wash or a fast-food joint. To them, anything is better than the fields."

Veteran labor recruiter Benito Olivarez estimates as much as 80 percent of his legal work force is comprised of convicted criminals with little education and few options.

"The people working in the fields can't get work elsewhere," he says. "They're mostly young kids in trouble."


Children of migrant workers aren't the only ones bailing out of agriculture.

Fred Schuster has spent much of his life fighting off freezes and droughts, not to mention developers who have sought to gobble up the farmland owned by his family since 1933.

Schuster owns one of the largest vegetable farms left in the Rio Grande Valley. And if it was up to him, he would go right on growing.

"I'm so bonded with the soil," he says. "It's what I'm gifted to do."

But the Valley, once an Eden of citrus groves and vegetable farms, has changed dramatically in recent years as growers have sold out to make way for the now ever-present maquiladora industrial parks and the planned residential communities that have sprouted around them.

The Valley's main urban centers -- Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen and Mission -- for the last two decades have comprised the fastest growing region in Texas. Its population, which is more than two-thirds Hispanic, has increased by 62 percent since 1990, from 700,000 to 1.1 million today, according to U.S. Census data.

Property values in some areas have more than doubled in recent years, says Mike Blum, a commercial real-estate broker and former city planner for McAllen. Land is selling for as much as $16,000 an acre, or $8 million for a 500-acre family farm, Blum says.

"Los Angeles was a string of little cities -- that's what we are," says Rod Santa Ana of the Texas A&M agricultural research and extension service in Weslaco. "It all comes together as a huge metropolis."

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