In 2001 Rosario Ventura came to the United States from Mexico and went to work in Washington State, picking blueberries for Sakuma Farms. “I was expecting a different type of work here,” she recalls, “but this is all there is. I thought I would save up something here and go back, but I haven’t been able to do it. It is too difficult.”
The first job she had was pruning blueberry bushes. “It was really hard. After cutting the branches, they’d spring back and hit me in the face or all over. It really hurt.” She stuck it out though, working summers in Washington, and in the winter trying to find work further south in California, near Fresno.
Two years after she arrived from Oaxaca, she met Isidro Silva in the Sakuma fields. Although they belong to two different indigenous ethnic groups—she speaks Triqui and he speaks Mixteco—they got married. For the next ten years they made the trip back and forth each year with their children.
“You don’t get enough work, and what little you earn is quickly used up,” Ventura explains. “My children are growing. They need clothes, all of that. We have to pay the rent, bills and everything we eat. We don’t ever have enough money, because it runs out like water.”
Ventura’s job doesn’t pay much—at a piece-rate wage, it often averages just below state minimum wage, she says. It provides work for only half the year, leaving her family to migrate hundreds of miles to look for employment to fill out the other months. But the Sakuma job has been constant. In the insecure world of farm labor, it has allowed her family to survive.
That may not be true much longer, however.
This year Sakuma Farms applied for H-2A work visas for 438 workers it intends to bring from Mexico to work during the harvest, from June 18 to October 15. Afterward, they would have to go back to Mexico. Sakuma, one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, hires about 500 workers each picking season. If it recruits 438 of them in Mexico, there will not be enough work for those like Ventura, who have been laboring in its fields every year.
Sakuma Brothers Farms is a family business with annual sales of $6.1 million. During World War II the Sakumas were interned because of their Japanese ancestry, and would have lost their land, as many Japanese farmers did, had not another local rancher held it in trust for them until the war ended. Today their business includes a retail outlet, a freezer and processing plant, and a chain of nurseries in California growing rootstock for strawberry plants. They supply berries to the Driscoll Foods processing giant, and to Haagen-Dazs, the upscale ice-cream brand of the Nestlé conglomerate.
The possibility that Sakuma Farms may replace Ventura and her coworkers with H-2A guest workers has enormous implications for the 1.4 million farm workers in the United States. Using recruited contract labor to replace workers already living here, whether they are immigrants or native-born, has a long, sordid history. It goes all the way back to the hated bracero program of the 1940s and ’50s, which activists like Cesar Chavez and Ernesto Galarza successfully convinced Congress to abolish in 1964.
But guest worker programs never went away entirely. The H-2A program, established in 1986, has been growing every year since then. H-2A-type programs would be greatly expanded in immigration reform bills now in Congress, including those supported by both Democrats and Republicans. And even though those bills haven’t passed, the number of guest workers is rising rapidly anyway.