Photo by Daniel Caso
Tomas Amezcua and Concepcion Santa Rosa were crossing El Cerro, the border, on their way from Mexico to the United States. Concepcion had done this once already, but this time, she was three months pregnant. She and her husband wanted the baby growing in her womb to be born in the U.S. They hoped to find work and give their child an opportunity for a better life.
Fearful she might harm her baby, Concepcion refused to drink any of the natural, dirty water along the way. There were gallons of clean water placed along their path, but those were off limits as well — they were a trick. Drink those, and Border Patrol would know people were crossing. They would find them.
Tomas and Concepcion stumbled upon some water near a herd of cattle. Tomas swished his hands through the water in an attempt to clear the dirt away and finally quench his thirst.
“¿Quieres tomar agua? Do you want some?” he asked his wife as he lifted mouthfuls of water to his lips.
“No,” she refused. Her throat was burning with thirst, too, but she had to think of the baby.
“Maybe we should just stay here and let immigration get us,” he said.
They were both exhausted.
“No,” Concepcion repeated firmly. “Let’s just go a little bit more.”
Tomas and Concepcion finally arrived in the U.S., but after receiving citizenship and having Angelica in 1988, they moved back to their hometown of Jalisco, Mexico. Tomas and Concepcion moved between the United States and Mexico for several years until moving to the U.S. permanently in 2000.
When they arrived, they moved in with some of Concepcion’s family in Fillmore, California. Concepcion’s parents, brothers and sisters lived in a single-family house. Tomas, Concepcion and their children were only able to rent one of the bedrooms for the five of them to live and sleep in together.
“There were other families in the other rooms,” Angelica, the oldest child, now 27, said. “My grandma couldn’t really pay for rent, so to be able to help herself economically, she rented the garage for other people. You do whatever you can to be able to survive.”
About 12 people lived in the home, with another five people in the garage.
California produces the most food of all the states in the country, accounting for almost half of the United States’ fruit, nut and vegetable output each year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Hispanic immigrants make up the majority of the labor that harvests the millions of tons of food California yields each year. However, a steady inflow of immigrants, stagnating low wages and few employment options have made immigrant farmworker living conditions a cause for concern.
Specifically, farmworker living conditions are a problem in Ventura County, which is just north of Pepperdine and is also the ninth-largest agricultural county in the state, according to the 2012 California County Agricultural Commissioners’ Report.
“We have an economy that actually depends a lot on our agriculture,” House Farm Workers! Program Coordinator Alondra Serna said. “It’s a $2 billion-a-year industry due to all the agricultural workers involved. Without them, it would really negatively impact our community.”
Yet farmworkers in Ventura made an average salary of $20,000 per year in 2014, according to the California Employment Development Department. This is problematic in a county where a $50,000 to $60,000 salary is necessary to afford to rent an apartment. In order for housing to be considered “affordable,” it must only require 30 percent of a family’s income, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition “Out of Reach 2014” report. While there are some government programs to provide low-income housing, the burden often falls on nonprofits to fill in the gaps.
Due to the limited amount of affordable housing in Ventura County, most immigrant farmworker families end up living “in garages, or are doubling, tripling up in single-family homes,” Serna said. “We’re not talking about single workers, though that’s an issue too; we’re talking about family units that are going to our schools, that are part of this community, and as a result, it really impacts children’s lives.”
Housing is one of the most difficult social goods to obtain, but it is necessary for survival, said David K. Androff, assistant professor at the School of Social Work at Arizona State University and the head researcher for the 2011 “U.S. Immigration Policy and Immigrant Children’s Well-Being” study.
“We all need shelter, but it is really expensive,” Androff said. “Many immigrants are renters, and can be vulnerable to exploitative landlords. Our social policy in general, and also specifically in regard to immigrants, is not very helpful to making sure that people have safe and affordable housing.”
MiCop Community Organizer Juvenal Solano said farmworkers aren’t asking for much.
“The only thing we want is that people show respect to those who put food on the table,” he said, his words translated from Spanish.
Solano said he came to the United States when he was 14 because there was no way to make a living in his hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico since the land is dry and no crops grow. However, in Ventura, wages were so low, Solano said he worked very hard for very little.
“It is always minimum wage,” Solano said, his words translated from Spanish. “But everything is very expensive … It is very difficult because the work doesn’t pay well. It is always el mínimo, el mínimo, el mínimo, so the entire family has to work so that they can pay for food and clothes, too. It is hard work.”
The seasonal nature of the agricultural industry also contributes to the immigrant housing problem. Many earn salaries well below the poverty line, which is $24,250 for a family of four, according to the 2015 Poverty Guidelines.
Farm owners frequently keep farmworkers’ wages low to increase profits by paying them piecemeal, or based on how much they harvest rather than by the hour. This increases productivity but prevents most workers from achieving the standard $9 minimum per hour.
“Certainly not all growers are evil, but growers are really stretched economically and the only elasticity they have is their labor, so they pay as little and spend as little [as possible] to maintain the labor force,” said Sara Quandt, researcher and professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University.
The real average hourly wages of non-supervisory farm laborers have risen 0.8 percent per year since 1990, staying at $10.80 in 2012, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Fieldworkers’ average annual wages rose to $11.29 per hour in 2014, up 2 percent from 2013, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
However, E. Roberta “Bobbi” Ryder, president and CEO for the National Center for Farmworker Health, said consumers who enjoy the low-cost produce cannot forget their role.
“We are in large part responsible for the continual dependence on cheap labor,” she said. “We buy the products from these companies, and they’re making a lot of money.”
Ryder said buying produce from farms that pay a living wage would only cost families about $44 more per year.
“By demonstrating with our wallets, we have the ability to influence the farmers to pay them a living wage,” Ryder said. “Most consumers don’t stop to think about that: their role in perpetuating substandard living for three million people in this country doing farm labor.”
Quandt said she is surprised by the public’s priorities.
“It’s always interesting that people care about conditions of animals on farms and the environment, and it seems to me that people should also care about the workers that produce the food,” Quandt said.
In Ventura County especially, low wages are coupled with high rent, exacerbating the lack of financial flexibility and mobility in farmworker families. The average two-bedroom apartment in Ventura, for example, is $1,479 per month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“Farmworkers mostly need to live in the cities because there are big restrictions about building anything on farmland, even for farmworkers,” Ellen Brokaw, president of Brokaw Ranch Company and chair of House Farm Workers!, said. “They really struggle in this very high-priced housing economy … So what do they do? They crowd several families to a house. They live in garages, sheds.”
Ryder said taking advantage of cheap labor, particularly immigrants, is nothing new: “We have a long history of depending on cheap labor in this country. If you look at who’s building houses, cleaning hotels or working at restaurants, it’s a lot of immigrants.”
Many wonder why people continue to immigrate to the U.S. from Latin America if the conditions are so bad, but Emily Ryo, professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, said the main reason is economic.
Ryo has performed several qualitative research studies about immigrants. In her most recent study, “Deciding to Cross: Norms and Economics of Unauthorized Migration,” Ryo found that many immigrants consider themselves “moral and law-abiding individuals who respect borders,” but obligations to their families make violating the law to work in the U.S. a legitimate option, Ryo said.
“It is the substantive nature of the work that they take pride in,” Ryo said. It is the substantive nature that is legal and honorable.”
Yet when they come to the U.S., immigrants often face the same problems of limited employment options and instability, which has been exacerbated by the shrinking harvests due to the drought, causing a loss of more than 17,000 jobs, according to a 2014 UC Davis study, “New Center Report Details Drought Impact.” The only difference is that immigrants earn just enough to send back to their families, often keeping them in poverty and preventing them from being able to afford adequate housing.
Brokaw said this is an important issue to everyone — not just the people living in conditions unsuitable for humans.
“The fallback for that is huge, not just for the people in the family, but for the community,” Brokaw said. “This is not just an agricultural issue, because most of [the farmworkers] here now are here permanently … It is really important to make sure everyone [in a community] has a safe, affordable, decent house.”
Over the course of the past decade, governmental agencies and nonprofit groups have become more interested in the improvement of farmworker housing conditions.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development all provide housing services to farmworkers and can be contacted with farmworker housing questions. Some of these programs include: the Farm Labor Housing Loans and Grants Program, the National Farmworker Jobs Housing Assistance Program, and the Family Self-Sufficiency Program.
These departments are in charge of administering certain laws to protect farmworkers, two of which are the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act requires labor contractors, agricultural employers and agricultural associations to disclose and comply with the terms and conditions of employment, post-worker protection information at the worksite, pay each worker his or her earned wages, ensure that any housing or transportation provided complies with federal and state regulations, and maintain payroll records. However, there are exemptions — namely independent contractors — who are not considered employers.
OSHA provides federal safety and health standards for field sanitation and temporary agricultural labor camps. States may enforce their own standards, but they must meet the minimum federal requirements.
The welfare system can also be a huge aid to documented immigrants. In Ventura County, 25,817 immigrants — 60 percent legal permanent residents and 40 percent naturalized citizens — have been on welfare in the past five years, according to the County of Ventura Human Services Agency welfare data. Of these, 85 percent receive aid through CalFresh, also known as food stamps, and 15 percent received aid through CalWORKs, which is a welfare program that gives short- or long-term cash aid and services to families who need help paying for living costs, food and other necessities. County of Ventura Human Services Agency Senior Manager Jennie Pittman wrote in an email that the distribution of CalFresh and CalWORKs clients in Ventura County has remained constant over the years.
Only non-citizens with permanent resident status who have been here for five years or who were admitted for humanitarian reasons may qualify for welfare. Undocumented individuals and non-citizens who are in the U.S. temporarily, including students and tourists, are not eligible to receive welfare, Pittman wrote.
“Eligible household members can get CalFresh benefits even if other members of the household are not eligible,” Pittman wrote. This means children who were born in the U.S. or who have been given permanent residence under the Immigration and Nationality Act may receive food stamps and share with the rest of their possibly undocumented family. The Immigration and Nationality Act, created in 1952, has been amended many times, but it has remained the center of immigration law in the U.S., according to the INA website.
“CalFresh and CalWORKs grants are intended to be supplemental in nature, so the dollar figures do not reflect the full costs of buying food for a month, paying rent for a month, etc.,” Pitman wrote. “So if four-person family receives a level of monetary assistance that is intended to supplement the resources of a two-person family, it’s a matter of opinion about whether the parents are ‘benefiting’ from their children’s benefits.”
Government aid directly for immigrant housing has generally helped children the most. President Barack Obama increased the aid in 2014 in response to what he called an “urgent humanitarian situation” in a letter to Congress, when there was an abnormally large influx of children, ages 13 to 17, entering the U.S. — particularly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — to escape poverty and violence.
Most immigrant adults in California end up in one of the 24 temporary migrant camps, said Ann López, founder and director of the Center for Farmworker Families, but they can only stay from May 1 to Nov. 30 each year.
“While they’re in the camps, it’s wonderful,” López said. “It’s nothing fancy, but it’s adequate.”
Once the season is over, however, migrants have to either find other work or go back to their home countries. For those who are undocumented, going home is often not an option since it would be difficult to come back to the U.S. again, López said. As about 30 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population is undocumented, this affects about 11 million people, Ryo said. This means that the workers often have to follow the harvest, which disrupts children’s education and can cause health problems for children and adults due to stress.
Brokaw Ranch Company and Limoneira are two examples of corporations in Ventura County that provide resources to their farmworkers that help improve their living conditions.
Brokaw Ranch Company has nine to 10 permanent workers in Ventura and Monterey Counties for year-round necessities on their 200 acres of lemons and avocados, Brokaw said.
However, like many agricultural outlets, Brokaw said they hire temporary workers through farm labor contractors, which makes the farmworkers — instead of the labor contractors or the company — responsible for their own healthcare and other benefits, since they are considered self-employed.
Brokaw said the system is “not good” because it leaves employers unaccountable for their workers. While it is out of the company’s control whether the contracted labor is documented — in fact, Brokaw said most of them are undocumented — she said Brokaw Ranch Company does everything it can to avoid hiring undocumented permanent employees. The contracted employees are paid piecemeal, which means they are paid per number of bins of lemons picked or per number of trees pruned, Brokaw wrote in an email.
Brokaw wrote that the companies’ permanent, year-round employees, who work about 50 hours per week, are paid anywhere from $10.25 an hour for new employees to $16.40 an hour for the orchard irrigator and an employee who has been there for 35 years. She wrote there are also annual bonuses from $500 to $4,000 and benefits including vacations, holidays, sick leave, health insurance and a retirement plan, which take up about 22 percent of the payroll.
Like most farms in the county, Brokaw Ranch Company does not offer employee housing due to the expenses and limited amount of land in Ventura, but as chair of House Farm Workers!, Brokaw and her business are open advocates for getting more affordable farmworker housing built, which requires approval from the public and government officials.
Limoneira grows several types of citrus and avocados, providing 50 percent of the United States’ lemon supply from properties across the state, according to Mary Maranville, Limoneira tour guide and also the founder and executive director of Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture. Maranville said 25 percent of Limoneira’s produce is shipped internationally to 18 different countries, primarily South Korea and China. With lemons in season year-round, Limoneira processes 500,000 pounds of lemons every day.
Maranville said 50 percent of Limoneira’s 400 workers live in farmworker housing, with a total of 183 homes on the property in Ventura and 195 in California total, some of the most expansive farmworker employee housing in the county. While the homes were built in 1919, they appear to be in great shape.
Maranville said employees are the company’s “No. 1 asset”: “It’s a community within a community … Many families have been working here for generations,” she said.
Director of Sustainability and Food Safety Tomas Gonzalez said he has been working at Limoneira for 42 years, one of many “40-plussers” who work at the company. Gonzalez said he worked his way up to being director from picking oranges when he was a teenager. He gained work experience within the company and took advantage of the scholarships Limoneira offers to its employees, which can cover up to two years of higher education.
“There are just a few companies like Limoneira that offer jobs, housing at a discount, benefits, so that’s the reason [the workers] stay. That’s the reason I’ve been here,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve gotten job offers with better pay, but there’s nothing like home.”
With support from the public, these companies are able to make sustainable profits while paying their workers enough to maintain a higher standard of living.
Through advocacy and action, nonprofits in Ventura County attempt to change the standard for farmworkers’ living conditions.
“I think most of the people who live in the cities really like having agriculture and like looking at it and driving by it, but the people who make it possible are pretty invisible, so we try to put a face on the farmworker and how the farmworker lives,” Brokaw said.
Some nonprofits include House Farm Workers!, Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation, the Center for Farmworker Families, Farmworker Justice and Micop.
House Farm Workers! is a volunteer-driven nonprofit that started in 2004 and primarily focuses on advocacy and raising public awareness by hosting conferences and seminars, educating the public and government officials, making and showing documentaries, testifying at city council meetings, and supporting other nonprofits and corporations who aim to build affordable housing, Serna said.
City committees — including city officials and concerned citizens — meet monthly to discuss immigrant living conditions and plan how to raise awareness and make tangible changes in the community, Serna said. House Farm Workers! also hosts fundraisers, including bus tours that take people to poor housing and then affordable housing to see the difference.
“Most people wouldn’t know the housing is affordable because affordable housing has been done beautifully,” Serna said.
No one was discussing, let alone acting, on this issue a decade ago, Serna said. But since then, nonprofits and corporations have built 500 housing units for farmworkers in Ventura County.
“Affordable housing developers in the area have been able to put up really great houses, and we’ve seen family units’ trajectories transform,” Serna said. “Children are going to universities. They’ve really transformed their lives.”
Brokaw acknowledged the progress, but she said there is still a long way to go.
“There is a lot of resistance in communities to any low-income housing,” Brokaw said. “In the past 10 years, we’ve helped build 500 units, which is nice, except when you realize there are 20,000 farmworkers in Ventura County.”
Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation is a private nonprofit, founded in 1981, that focuses on community development by building homes for low-income families and renting them at affordable rates, Communications Director Jennifer Gordon said.
“The mission is what drove me here and what keeps me here,” she said. “It’s a tremendously fulfilling job and place to be.”
CEDC has 23 separate communities of affordable housing in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for different low-income groups, including farmworkers, the elderly and people with mental or physical disabilities, Gordon said. CEDC owns a total of 1,063 units, which house one to eight people, depending on the unit, Gordon said.
Tomas and Concepcion Amezcua — who first came to the U.S. when Concepcion was pregnant with their firstborn, Angelica, and immigrated to the U.S. permanently in 2000 — rented a single bedroom in different houses in Fillmore for their family of six throughout most of Angelica’s life, because they couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. During Angelica’s second year of college, they applied for and received CEDC housing. It changed their lives.
Their two-story house, one of the biggest in the complex, has four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The living room alone is probably about as big as any one of the bedrooms they once occupied as a family, Angelica said.
In order to qualify for the CEDC homes, families must earn less than 50 percent of Ventura’s median income, which is $86,100 for a family of four, according to the CEDC website.
To finance the developments, CEDC must look to a variety of sources, including city grants, federal funds, private banks and funds from individual investors who believe in CEDC’s mission.
Due to a lack of community support and the need to get all the required permits, “It can take 15 years from when they buy [a piece of real estate] to when they build on property,” Gordon said. “There are a lot of forces that work against affordable housing. A lot of people don’t understand it and don’t understand why it’s important.”
The Center for Farmworker Families promotes education among immigrant farmworkers in the U.S. and their families in Mexico, supports the financial and nutritional well-being of families in Mexico and California, and advocates for workers’ rights and awareness of farmworkers’ difficulties, according to the website.
“It’s an underground culture of near-slaves, and no one talks about it,” Center for Farmworker Families Founder and Director Ann López said. “No one should be shocked that this is happening — it’s happening all across the state.”
Farmworker Justice is a national nonprofit organization that helps empower farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, safety and access to labor unions by ending discrimination, demanding enforcement of laws, promoting higher wages and better working conditions and pursuing immigration reform, according to their website.
Migrant Health Policy Analyst Alexis Guild said Farmworker Justice works with other groups across the country, such as United Farm Workers and other labor unions, to continually try to advance immigration reform, workers’ rights, healthcare and the H2-A program, which allows agricultural employers to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary positions. They also help catalog abuses and ensure growers are held accountable to H2-A regulations.
“The majority of farmworkers are undocumented,” Guild said. “Not that housing requires an ID, but it’s easier to take advantage of workers who lack documentation because they’re less likely to speak up about poor conditions.”
Guild said workers hesitate to speak up and advocate for themselves because they fear unemployment and deportation.
“That pervasive fear really prevents farmworkers from having working and living conditions that they’re entitled to, because they know [their employers] are in a position of power, and it’s pretty unlikely that the workers will speak up or report violations to federal authorities,” Guild said. “Farmworker legal services are amazing and provide training for workers, go out to camps and inform them of their rights. They sometimes work with others in the community to raise the voice of farmworkers and really advocate on the local level and sometimes the state.”
MiCop is another prominent group in the Ventura County area that focuses on outreach to Mixtecos, an indigenous group of Mexicans from Oaxaca and Guerrero, who number around 20,000, Solano said.
MiCop aims to teach Mixtecos about safety, establish community, provide healthcare and education, and inform workers of their rights under the Farm Worker Safety Act, such as their rights to sue their employers, demand shade, drink water and rest to avoid heat exhaustion. Among Mixtecos, who often don’t even speak Spanish but their own unique language instead, human rights violations are all the more common, Solano said.
“We’re all better off when everyone has access to healthcare and housing,” Ryder said. “There’s a sense that farmworkers take things away as opposed to contributing, that they come here and work and send all money back to Mexico, and that our economy will suffer because that money is leaving. The very small money they earn for their wages is a small percentage compared to the overall revenue of the agricultural industry.”
Follow Falon Opsahl on Twitter: @FalonOpsahl