TIETON, Wash. — His name is Evaristo Silva, but the immigrant farm hands address him with reverence as Don Varo.
He once was one of them -- a poor and desperate young man from Mexico who left behind a pregnant wife and three children and risked his life crossing the border on an illegal search for the American Dream. Now he is everything they aspire to be.
The farmworker became a farm owner, saving enough to buy a small apple orchard on the outskirts of Yakima. The illegal immigrant became a United States citizen, benefiting from the amnesty President Reagan offered to his generation of undocumented migrants.
"For me, this really was the land of opportunity," Silva, 62, said as he walked along the tidy rows of his red delicious apple trees. "In Mexico, I would wake up on many days without knowing how I was going to eat. I may not have much here, but I am so much better off than I would have been if I had stayed."
But now that the \o7campesino\f7 is a ranchero, and needs illegal immigrants to pick and prune his apple orchard, he has found that they don't need him any more to succeed in America.
Silva now wants to end illegal immigration. He wants an expanded guest worker program so that farm owners like him could still benefit from the cheap labor of Mexican workers. The foreigners could come into the U.S. to work harvests, but would then have to go home.
He feels this way despite understanding that such a radical shift -- most fruit pickers are illegal immigrants -- would separate fathers from their families every growing season, and guarantee that younger field hands never get the opportunities he had.
"Everything has a limit," Silva said in Spanish, the language he's most comfortable speaking. "People who are working and have been here a long time should be allowed to stay. But if half of Latin America keeps coming -- Hondurans, Salvadorans, Mexicans -- you will reach a point where we don't all fit."
Silva's new stance on immigration is largely based on his own bottom line. Yakima Valley apple growers are struggling to survive because they face global competition from farmers in China and Chile who undercut their prices.
Silva is having a hard time finding field hands willing to work for $8 to $10 an hour -- the most he and other farmers say they can afford -- because illegal immigrants can now earn more as year-round construction workers and janitors.
Silva scrounged up a crew last year to harvest his 40 acres, but other farmers were less fortunate: Some of their apples rotted on the trees. Still, low apple prices have so eroded Silva's profits that for the last two years, he has not been able to make payments on his orchard.
Without a guest worker program, the farm hand turned farm owner believes he will lose his land.
As Silva toured his orchard, tugging wayward branches at just about every step, he marveled at how much he had accomplished since sneaking into the U.S. three decades ago.
A small man with evocative brown eyes, graying hair and a bushy mustache, Silva wore a red-check flannel shirt, faded blue jeans and brown work boots. Somewhat jarringly, he also wore a yellow construction helmet, a habit he picked up as a field hand worried that a falling apple might thump him in the head.
His had not been an easy life, he conceded; he was sometimes "treated like another piece of farm equipment" in his years as a farmworker. But as he surveyed his family's homestead amid the gently rolling hills of his apple orchard, he stopped and said, "I have lived a beautiful life."
Silva is a native of Pajacuaran, a poor old farming town in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Generations of men from his town -- including Silva's father, Jesus -- have illegally entered the U.S. to work the fields. Their wages, often just a few thousand dollars a year, were princely compared with what the same work would pay in Pajacuaran.
Silva started out working the harvests in America and returning home each year. But after he nearly died crossing the desert east of San Diego in 1972, he got scared of crossing back and forth and decided to stay in the U.S.
A devout Roman Catholic and devoted family man, Silva lived away from his children for so long that when two of them unexpectedly showed up on his doorstep one day, he did not recognize them. The memory of it made him cry. "At the time my children needed me most, I was away," Silva said, wiping away tears. Apologizing, he continued: "But it was out of necessity."
The entire family eventually reunited in Washington, where Silva followed in his father's path and found plentiful work as an apple picker. His children also became citizens; his wife, Maria, became a legal resident.
"When my husband first told me he was in Washington -- to me, a Mexican, it sounded very cold, like he was at the end of the world," Maria said with a smile. "But we have really done well here as a family. This is our home now."