Robert Gumpert, Lettuce, 2001. Members of a Salvadoran crew harvest Romaine lettuce in the Imperial Valley.
Immigration and Agriculture
California is the number one agricultural state in the nation, producing nearly $70 billion annually. About 1 in every 10 jobs in the state is in agriculture. Unlike the family farms that dominated the landscape in the East and Midwest, corporate farming has ruled agriculture in California since the 19th century. The main California crops such as grapes, tomatoes, and orchard fruit rarely are harvested mechanically. California agriculture requires tens of thousands of low-paid seasonal laborers to pick fruits and vegetables.
Faced with a stagnant economy at home and very few opportunities, many Central American and Mexican men and women looked north for additional sources of income. While some remained in the United States, many continued to see Latin America as their permanent home.
In the 1970s and especially after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Latin Americans who had previously engaged in a seasonal migration were encouraged to remain in the United States permanently. Under the provisions of the Act, some 2.7 million Mexicans were in effect given asylum. Once gaining citizenship, family members of the immigrants became eligible for residency, thus further increasing migration.
For the first time employers who employed illegal aliens were punished by law. Patrolling of the borders increased dramatically. Some argue that these provisions made seasonal immigration much riskier. As a result, many who would have returned home after harvest now chose to stay on illegally in the United States.