California agriculture relies on illegal immigrants, silence

Fresno BeeNovember 14, 2010 

From his cramped trailer office along a dusty road lined with grape vines near Selma, Guillermo Zamora hires farmworkers by the dozens and dispatches them across Fresno County to prune and pick crops. He's a Mexican immigrant farmworker turned farm-labor contractor — the go-to guy for laborers who need jobs and growers who need workers.

Most days, he rumbles along country roads in his Chevy Silverado pickup with orange flame decals. The American flag on the dashboard lets people know where his allegiance lies.

"You ain't going to find a Mexican more proud to be an American," said Zamora, a legal U.S. resident, on a recent summer morning. "This is a beautiful country."

The truth is, though, Zamora doesn't hire Americans. Farm labor contractors and most other employers in the Valley's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry rely almost exclusively on immigrants — mostly illegal immigrants.

Employers hire them as long as they have a forged Social Security card and a green card, which can be bought for less than $100 through a vast underground industry of fake-document vendors in the Central Valley.

The system works well for farmers and farmworkers — as well as many restaurants, hotels and construction companies. But many innocent legal residents are hurt because document counterfeiters often hijack their Social Security numbers.

Agriculture employers often say they can't tell whether the cards are real — but hardly any use a voluntary government online program that helps detect fakes. They say that if they did, they would go out of business. Says Zamora: "I'd end up with no people."

The scheme keeps the Central Valley's economy running on a simple, unspoken rule: Don't ask, don't tell. Employees pretend they're legal residents; employers pretend they don't know any better.

"It's a game — a big game," said Joseph Riofrio, a city councilman in the western Fresno County farmworker town of Mendota, where perhaps a third of the residents are illegal immigrants. "But it's a necessary game. If this game doesn't continue, then the fruit isn't picked, the vegetables aren't picked, and the vibrant agriculture industry stops."

Read more of this story at FresnoBee.com

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