October 1995, Volume 1, Number 4
Gatekeeper and Farm Workers
On October 1, 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service
launched Operation Gatekeeper, an effort to prevent unauthorized
aliens from entering the US, rather than apprehending those who did
enter. The INS constructed a 10-foot steel wall along the five
westernmost miles of border, and flooded the area with agents.
The INS announced that the effects of this
prevention-through-deterrence strategy would be felt within one year,
and the INS is reporting that Gatekeeper "worked." Apprehensions in
the five westernmost miles of the 24 mile-border south of San Diego
sector were down 40 percent to 114,460 in FY95.
However, apprehensions in the entire 24-mile San Diego sector were
up 14 percent to 512,000, and critics assert that the sector-wide
increase in apprehensions simply shows that controlling the border is
like squeezing a balloon--concentrated efforts at one point simply
transfer the aliens further east.
Attorney General Reno announced in mid-October, 1995 that US
Attorney for San Diego, Alan Bersin, would be a "border czar"
responsible for coordinating US law enforcement efforts along the
2000 mile US-Mexican border. The INS will open its first ever courts
at the port of entry, and prosecute smugglers.
Reports from the single most labor-intensive activity in North
American agriculture--the harvest of about 200,000 acres of raisin
grapes around Fresno, California from mid-August to October--found
that newly arrived workers are getting into the US and going to work
Raisin production has risen from about 220,000 tons per year in
the mid-1970s to 320,000 tons per year today. Increasingly, raisins
are being sold in bulk as ingredients to cereal and candy
Some 50,000 workers are involved in this six-week effort to cut
bunches of grapes and lay them on paper trays to dry in the sun.
Workers receive from $0.15 to $0.18 per 25 pound tray of grapes
picked and laid on paper trays to dry in the sun, and the farm labor
contractors who recruit and supervise crews of up to 40 harvesters
receive about $0.05 per tray to cover payroll taxes for the
workers wages, plus their own costs and profits. Many young men aim
to earn $100 per day during the raisin harvest.
Informal surveys of aliens in the US suggest that about 70 percent
of them succeed in entering the US illegally on their first try.
Surveys of aliens in Mexico find that, even though most of those
planning to enter the US illegally know about Gatekeeper, the INS
operation is not deterring them from planning to attempt illegal
The cost of being smuggled to Fresno has risen significantly, but
not enough to stop workers intent on reaching the US. Unauthorized
workers report that, after several apprehensions in the San Diego
sector, they succeeded in entering the US further east, and that
smugglers' fees rose from $200 to $300 to $300 to $400. In addition,
workers noted that they lost days of work in the US because of delays
in crossing the border.
Some of the workers in the Fresno area reported that discouraged
colleagues in 1995 gave up and returned home, but most seem to have
persisted until they succeeded in reaching the Fresno area. Few
farmers complained of labor shortages, and several observers noted
that labor shortages are often more a function of the timing of
harvests than a physical shortage of labor.
In other words, a delayed tree fruit harvest, and an early wine
grape harvest, can combine to produce a shortage of workers for the
raisin harvest, since all three commodities simply rely on workers to
show up when they are needed.
Several Fresno-area employer groups are advocating a
"registration" guest worker system, under which Mexican workers would
register at the border, and be allowed to work in the US only during
the harvest season.
Many observers noted that the INS seems to have given up on
internal enforcement in agriculture. There are 22 INS agents in the
Fresno, Bakersfield and Stockton offices. The entire Livermore sector
of California, which includes the Central Valley, recorded only about
17,000 apprehensions in FY95, versus over 500,000 at the border.
Sebastian Rotella, "Crackdown Pushes Border Crossings East," Los
Angeles Times, September 30, 1995. Sandra Sanchez, "Heat Being Turned
Up on Illegal Immigrants," USA Today, September 29, 1995. Seth
Mydans, "Clampdown at Border is Hailed as Success," New York Times,
September 28, 1995. Diane Lindquist, "Grape Expectations: Border
Crackdown hasn't slowed migrant workers for raisin harvest," San
Diego Union-Tribune, September 17, 1995.