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Be Careful What You Pray For . . .

October 02, 1994|PETER H. KING

SELMA — The storm had passed. The last clouds were visible to the east, stacked against the Sierra. The sky over the San Joaquin Valley was a brilliant blue. An after-scent of rain hung in the air, along with the sweet, sticky smell of grapes ripening into raisins. A farmer squatted in his vineyard and poked a finger deep into the moist dirt.

"You can see," he said, "how much rain we got."

For growers in this dry land, rain most often is regarded as a blessing--free water. "Pray for rain" is a common valley mantra. There are certain times, though, when an unexpected shower can ruin a crop. It can rot peaches, say, split pomegranates, stain cotton or abort the ancient process by which grapes are dried by the sun into raisins.

This was one of those times. Almost a third of the valley's raisin crop had been drying on the ground, exposed, when the rains came. It poured all Wednesday. The morning after, growers headed warily into the muddy vineyards to take stock. With luck, much of the crop could be salvaged, but there would be damage and higher costs. This particular farmer figured the rain had all but wiped out his profit margin.

"All I needed was one more day," he said, exasperated. "If I had gotten the pickers when I was supposed to, these raisins would have been in bins, safe."


He did not, however, get his pickers on time. Not many farmers did. There was a shortage of field hands up and down the valley this year. This might come as a surprise to consumers of the screechy campaign rhetoric of Gov. Pete Wilson and proponents of Proposition 187, the so-called "save our state" initiative that, among other pleasantries, would require schoolteachers to round up undocumented children for deportation.

Wilson is all for it. He declares that California is awash under a brown tide. "Invaders," he calls them. This, of course, is dandy political music. A majority of Californians appear determined to drive out "illegals." They offer the word itself as a trump argument, perhaps forgetting a period in this state's history when Dust Bowl migrants also were "illegal" by virtue of the short-lived "Anti-Okie law." Wilson seems to have read well the political mood on this issue, an anger that was captured best by an author of Proposition 187:

"You are the posse," he told a gleeful rally in Orange County, "and SOS is the rope."

Which is all good and fine, except a lynch mob won't get the raisins picked. Nor will it sew the garments. Or hammer the drywall. Or cut the grass. Or baby-sit the children. Or take any of the other fine, low-paying jobs that California--to its dubious credit--has long reserved for undocumented workers. This was the point of Harry Kubo, an influential, and also politically conservative, agricultural leader in the valley, who told a Times reporter last week: "Let's face it. Fifty percent, if not more, of the agricultural work force in this valley is illegal. We'd sink economically without them."

Kubo's candor was remarkable, but the observation itself was hardly new. Nine years ago, a U.S. senator from California said pretty much the same thing. Debating a border bill, the senator warned against attacking illegal immigration "at the expense of a significant segment of American agriculture." A force of "temporary foreign workers," the senator went on, was "essential in order to ensure the timely harvest" of crops.

That senator, by the way, was named Pete Wilson.


The raisin crop this year was especially abundant, creating a higher demand for workers. Washington state, meanwhile, lured crews away for its apple crop. And, finally, both legal and undocumented pickers alike seemed to sense the increasing hostility and stayed home. Said one grower: "They just don't want the hassle."

In that sense, Proposition 187 proponents already can claim a success. They are beginning to scare away undocumented workers, and with a victory in November maybe they can go all the way. The question, then, will become: Who will do the dirty work? Who will take the low pay? The fantasy of Proposition 187 supporters seems to be that once California is cleansed of its illegal menace, welfare recipients can be coerced into the fields, killing the proverbial two birds with one stone. These SOS people are nothing if not dreamers.

The farmer who stood in his vineyard had his doubts. He's a conservative, but also a realist. After his labor contractor failed to deliver pickers on time, he went looking for workers at unemployment offices throughout the valley. He promised good pay, good conditions, the works, but also a lot of sweat. There were no takers.

"No one," he said, "wanted to do this kind of work."

A few days later, it started to rain.

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