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Life's the Same in a Labor Camp With or Without Papers

While there are differences in the experiences of people without papers and guest workers, some basic aspects of life are the same.

On a ranch north of the Bay Area, several dozen men live in a labor camp. When there's work they pick apples and grapes or prune trees and vines. This year, however, the ranch has had much less work, as the economic recession hits California fields. State unemployment is over 12%, but unemployment in rural counties is always twice what it is in urban ones. Despite these statistics, however, unemployment among farm workers is largely hidden.

In the case of these workers, it's hidden within the walls of the camp, far from the view of those who count the state's jobless. Because they work from day to day, or week to week, there are simply periods when there's no work at all, and they stay in the barracks.

In the past, the ranch's workers were mostly undocumented immigrants. In the last several years, however, the owner has begun bringing workers from Mexico under the H2-A guest worker program. While there are differences in the experiences of people without papers and guest workers, some basic aspects of life are the same. For the last several weeks, all the workers in the camp have been jobless, and neither undocumented workers nor guest workers can legally collect unemployment benefits. Everyone's living on what they've saved. And since the official total of the state's unemployed is based on counting those receiving benefits, none of the men here figure into California's official unemployment rate.

The camp residents share other similarities. Poverty in Mexico forced them all to leave to support their families. Living in the camp, they do the same jobs out in the fields. All of them miss their families and homes. And that home, as they see it, is in Mexico. Here, in the U.S., they don't feel part of the community that surrounds them.

A permanent resident visa, or "green card," would allow them to bring their families, and perhaps eventually to become integrated into the community. But for people coming from Mexico to look for work in California fields, green cards are not available. Their only alternative is what they call "walking through the mountains" -- that is, crossing without papers -- or signing up as a guest worker. In addition, as one man points out, because farmers are in the U.S. during planting season, the fields they'd normally cultivate at home go unplanted.

Some of their options as unemployed workers are different, however, because of their different immigration status. Ironically, in one way, guest workers have a disadvantage they don't share with the undocumented. Guest workers have a visa, but they can only work for the rancher or contractor who brought them to the United States. If they're out of work and leave the ranch to look for a job with another employer, they violate the terms of their visa and can be deported.

Undocumented workers, however, can and do look for jobs outside the ranch when work there gets slow. The dangers of deportation and working without a visa hang over their heads every day they're in the United States.



I'm 38 years old, and I come from Leon, Guanajuato, where there are a lot of factories making shoes. I spent 10 years working in those factories as a cutter. If you work a 10-hour day, you can make 1,100 pesos (about $100) a week. That's not enough to support a family, even there. And I have three kids, who are still living there with my wife.

I came to the U.S. because of the economic pressure of trying to provide for them. I wanted them to get an education and just eat well, just so they'd be healthy. We all felt terrible when I decided to come here nine years ago. The kids were little -- they didn't really understand. But when they got older, they'd ask me why I had to be gone so long.

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