Path to legal citizenship is blocked by restrictive policies

A decade ago, Vernon ran his Tulare County farm without the help of illegal immigrants. He had plenty of legal workers to keep the packing shed humming, irrigate and harvest the 200 acres of peaches, plums and apricots, and tend to the stuffy, smelly chicken houses.

Today, two-thirds of Vernon's 100-plus seasonal workers are illegal immigrants. He's spent the last several years brushing up on his Spanish, learning one new word a day so he can communicate with his workers.

So what's changed? Vernon -- who agreed to talk openly only if identified by his first name -- blames the government: Restrictive immigration policies make it almost impossible for low-skilled immigrants to come here legally.

He said that amnesty for illegal immigrants a quarter-century ago gave farmers in the Central Valley plenty of legal workers. But they eventually got too old for field labor or moved on to better-paying jobs, such as construction work.

"I don't like illegal immigration, and I don't think we should have it," Vernon said on a sunny afternoon in the backyard of his ranch house. "But the government doesn't provide [an adequate] way for workers to come here legally, so it's just kind of a don't-ask, don't-tell thing."

Vernon's frustration illustrates a key point: Immigrants who want to come here can't simply get in line because often there isn't a line. The government has a guest-worker program designed to fill seasonal jobs, but Central Valley farmers say it's too difficult to use. So they keep hiring illegal immigrants.

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