GILROY, Calif. — Salvador, Maria and their children have picked chilies, tomatoes and other vegetables here and in the Salinas Valley for 10 years, stooping in the fertile fields and keeping a nervous lookout for immigration agents who could swoop down at any time and ship them back to Mexico.
On a typical day recently, Salvador and Maria brought home $40--barely more than $2 an hour and far below the $3.35 minimum wage--for eight hours of harvesting chilies. When not in school, their children--including an 8-year-old son who is four years from the legal working age--work beside them in the fields despite laws against child labor.
But Salvador and Maria, both in the country illegally, are in no position to invoke the niceties of American labor laws.
Under a set of sweeping changes in immigration laws that passed the Senate last month and are under consideration in the House, people like Salvador and Maria might gain a chance to emerge from the underworld of the undocumented and demand better working conditions.
Instead of applauding, however, they fear the changes could usher in a new wave of cheap and legal foreign labor to snatch jobs from farm workers already here--both lawfully and otherwise.
"There is hardly enough work for us in the fields now because there are too many workers," said Salvador, who did not want to give his last name because of his illegal status. Maria agreed: "If the braceros come, there will be even less work for us."
Agricultural interests are pressing Congress to vastly expand their power to legally import "guest workers," primarily from Mexico, for temporary periods to harvest perishable fruits and vegetables. That demand has elevated the guest-worker issue to a pivotal role this year in Congress' long-running effort to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
So heated has the battle over the guest-worker provision become that it threatens to affect the outcome on the entire bill.
The Senate-passed legislation, while granting amnesty to many illegal aliens like Salvador and Maria who have been in the country for several years, would also make it illegal for the first time for employers to hire undocumented workers.
Fear Labor Shortage
Growers and their congressional allies, chief among them Republican Sen. Pete Wilson of California, contend that such sanctions would quickly dry up today's labor glut and create a shortage that--in the absence of guest workers--would leave weather-sensitive crops rotting on the ground and cripple the $23-billion perishable produce industry.
Critics of the guest-worker program, on the other hand, contend that the clamor for it is rooted more in greed than need. Latino groups and labor unions say unemployment in most of the nation's produce-growing regions is double the national average and that the jobless rate in California's agricultural heartland is even worse. Importing new workers, they argue, would merely keep those already here from demanding better wages and working conditions.
Dolores Huerta, a top official of the United Farm Workers' Union, envisions a "slave system for labor," supported by a "giant police system to enforce it that will affect only one group (Latinos)."
"Nonsense," counters Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach), a leading House advocate of a guest-worker program. "They talk as if we don't already have a large-scale presence of foreign farm labor."
Four in Five Could Stay
Neither side has conclusive facts at its disposal, but the only study available, done in 1983 by the State Employment Development Department and the University of California at Davis, indicates that four seasonal farm workers in five could prove legal immigration status and remain in the work force.
And in a further blow to the growers' argument that immigration reform could dry up their supply of labor, the study added: "Seasonality and oversupply of workers . . . leaves most farm worker families below the poverty level." Both sides' bleak visions of the future grow largely from the bitter experience of Western agriculture's traditional reliance on foreign workers to do the back-breaking work of harvesting produce.
California farmers have employed foreign workers ever since the golden spike was driven in 1869, inaugurating transcontinental rail traffic and opening Eastern markets to fruits and vegetables grown in the San Joaquin Valley. The first wave of foreign hands was mostly Chinese, but when they struck for higher wages, growers brought in Japanese, Filipinos and even Arabs. And always, there were the Mexicans.
'Okies' Join Military
During the Depression years of the 1930s, Western growers turned to impoverished domestic workers driven off their lands in Oklahoma, Arkansas and other Southern states. But when the "Okies" left the fields to join the military in World War II, Washington arranged with the Mexican government to send replacements.