(Corrects Arizona law description in third paragraph of story originally published on April 30.)
As the economy boomed in the mid- 2000s, many immigrants in southern California’s border country spurned field work in favor of construction and food-service jobs. Then they stopped coming to U.S. farms altogether.
So Larry Cox, who farms lettuce, cantaloupes and onions on 3,500 acres in Imperial County, California, shifted more production south of the border, where the Mexicali Valley offers a plentiful agricultural workforce, Cox, 53, said in an interview.
States in the southern and southwestern U.S. have passed immigration crackdowns, and the Supreme Court signaled last week it might be prepared to support an Arizona law that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally during stops, arrests or detentions. Yet rather than an invasion, Cox’s experience reflects an April 24 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, which concluded that the flow of migrants came to a “standstill” between 2005 and 2010, and may even have reversed.
“There’s been a huge migration of skilled agricultural labor into Mexico,” Cox said. “There is a creeping up of the average age of our workforce. We’re not getting replacements.”
Without new immigrants, agricultural operations from the desert region straddling the border to the slaughterhouses of High Plains states such as Nebraska and Iowa face labor shortages. Farmers got some relief when the real-estate crash drove out-of-work roofers, builders and contractors back to lower-paying jobs as field hands, Cox and others say. An uptick in construction could again leave them shorthanded.
“Harvesting Vidalia onions in Georgia becomes more challenging when you don’t have labor,” U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing April 26. “Many of these are jobs that frankly, Americans don’t want to do.”
Weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations and the dangers associated with illegal crossings contributed to the decline in immigration, according to the Pew report.
President Barack Obama’s deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops in 2010 to help monitor the border with Mexico, in addition to a separate contingent that works on drug interdiction, clamped down on the flow of immigrants. So did upgrades by the U.S. Border Patrol within the Homeland Security Department, more than doubling the number of agents on the southwestern frontier in the past 10 years, the Pew report said.
Bracing for Shortages
Growers from the south to Washington state are bracing for labor shortages, said Paul Schlegel, director of energy and environment for the Washington-based American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. grower group.
“Before the last year or so, we saw people who had worked in construction who were going back to ag,” he said. “There was not the labor shortage that people might have assumed.”
The reversal in immigration has had other consequences for Imperial County, a desert region of 175,000 residents about 115 miles (185 kilometers) east of San Diego. It has the highest unemployment rate for a U.S. county with a population of 100,000 or more, almost 27 percent in February, according to the Labor Statistics Bureau.
The border crossings between Calexico, California, with 39,000 residents, and Mexicali, Baja California, population 690,000, are the third-busiest between the U.S. and Mexico in terms of both pedestrian and personal vehicle crossings, according to the Transportation Statistics Bureau.
While the gateway still teems with day laborers and people visiting family on both sides of the border, it no longer draws thousands seeking long-term economic security in the U.S., said Hildy Carrillo, executive director of the Calexico Chamber of Commerce and a native of the border city.
“When they come over here, they can’t find jobs,” she said in an interview at City Hall. “They’re either filled by the local people who are willing to take anything or the jobs aren’t there anymore. The American Dream is no longer, at least for now.”
Five years ago, about 90 percent of employees at Family Style Buffet were from Mexico, said Carlton Hargrave, the owner of the restaurant on the outskirts of Calexico. Now, it’s about 50 percent, he said. Hargrave said he has found a glut of overqualified job applicants.
“The downturn in the economy has affected all of our workforces,” he said.
In the Imperial Valley, much of which is below sea level, migrant workers tend to cotton, alfalfa and vegetable fields irrigated by channels from the All-American Canal, which runs along the frontier.
Cox has farmed there for three decades, weathering a labor market that tightened after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to stepped-up security and longer wait times to cross the border.
Cox said his business employs as many as 1,200 seasonal workers in the U.S. and moved its celery, asparagus, cilantro and kale production into the Mexicali Valley, where it employs as many as 2,000 in season.
Southwest of Cox’s U.S. spread, Mount Signal looks out over irrigated green fields and rocky desert. Known as El Centinela in Mexico, the mountain marks a section of the border that until 2008 was a gateway for immigrant smugglers, said Armando Garcia, a supervising public-affairs agent for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division in Imperial County.
Driving a sport-utility vehicle along the border, Garcia pointed to a number of enhancements since 2008 that, he said, transformed some 50 miles of unfenced frontier into a nearly impregnable line. At Mount Signal, lines of railroad ties fashioned into X shapes are used to thwart vehicles attempting to drive into the country. Security cameras peer out over the landscape. The desert floor is wired with devices that detect footfalls, Garcia said.
Further east, in an area where blowing sand could overwhelm conventional barriers, the government constructed “floating fences” that adapt to the changing terrain. That area had been the site of frequent illegal crossings before it was contained in 2008 and 2009, Garcia said.
Homeland Security statistics show that along the Southwest border, the number of apprehensions of illegal entrants dropped to 327,600 in 2011 from a peak of 1.17 million in 2005.
Garcia said the border fortifications and the weaker U.S. economy caused many would-be migrants to rethink their plans. He stood at a section where crossers would have to scale a 20-foot (6-meter) fence, navigate the canal and evade the cameras and motion detectors, not to mention agents stationed along the line.
“Why put yourself through all of this when there may not be a job waiting for you on the other side?” he asked.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.