TWIN FALLS — She was dressed in her best clothes and high heels. The strangers she paid to take her across the border said they would pass her off as a tourist. Instead, she had to brave the desert.
Margarita Partida is a former migrant worker who landed in California before settling in south-central Idaho. She used to travel between the two as the seasons demanded: March to November in Idaho and November to March in California.
The number of migrant workers has declined nationwide, and many of those workers who are here now are on an H-2A visa, which allows farmers to bring in foreign workers for seasonal jobs.
The visa program requires farmers to pay its enrolled employees a set minimum wage. Idaho’s rate increased 16% from last year to $13.48 per hour. That rate is only 44 cents lower than California. The consistent increase in wages has Magic Valley farmers worried about downsizing or ceasing operations.
“(Shutting down operations) is not uncommon in part because of the migrant shortage and costs,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
The H-2A program also requires farmers to house and feed workers, and provide transportation and basic accommodations like laundry. These expenses are paid out-of-pocket.
The council offers workshops that help farmers learn how to stay in compliance with the law. It perused litigation to pause the H-2A wage increase particularly for Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, which experienced an increase of more than 20%.
“If you’re a farmer and you’ve planned for a 10% increase then find out it’s 23, you’re not going to be able to do it,” Marsh said.
Slowing of migration
It was pitch-black on the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico as Partida pressed herself against a wall along the canal she waded in with her back to the Air and Marine Operations helicopter that hummed above her.
She was careful to never look up. The whites of her eyes would shine under the helicopter’s spotlight and give away their position. It wasn’t until she found herself wading in neck-high waters in the middle of the river that she began to think her journey was over.
“I looked back to see if I could turn around and swim back but it was too far. There was just desert all around me,” Partida said in Spanish. “That was when I thought, ‘We’re going to die here.’”
When she landed in California, she began work almost immediately.
“We really are a strong community,” Partida said. “We come here to work right away so we can help ourselves and our families, so we aren’t a burden on this country.”
Partida worked as a migrant until she injured the ligaments in her wrist falling off a ladder while working at an orchard. She required five surgeries.
Now Mexican laborers are less likely to migrate due to better social programs, falling birth rates and economic improvement in Mexico, according to a 2016 study from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California Berkeley. Migrant labor, in general, fell about 60% since the late ‘90s.
“What we’re seeing now is laborers who have been here earning more money and gaining more experience,” said Randy Capps, director of research of U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. “They’re moving from agricultural work into better jobs.”
Older migrants are also aging out of the labor force, Capps said. As migrants start families in the U.S., their children who are citizens are afforded more opportunities and do not tend to continue agricultural work.
Changes in immigration law
Restrictive immigration laws passed since 9/11 have made it difficult for migrant workers to come and go as free as they once had. Since 1996, there have been seven major acts passed to tighten immigration restrictions.
Off a wide, open stretch of Washington Avenue sits El Milagro Housing, an affordable housing complex for agriculture workers, where Ofelia Bastidas and her husband, Polo Gil, live. She and her family found a stable living in Twin Falls, though sometimes she travels to Nampa for a week at a time depending on the harvest.
It was 20 years ago when Bastidas and her husband decided to move with their son to south-central Idaho to flee the violence in their native Culiacan, a city in the northwest Mexican state of Sinaloa. The family’s story is reminiscent of that of many others: They wanted a better life.
“We had to make sacrifices for our kids so they could have a chance to do something better so they don’t do what we’re doing,” Bastidas said in Spanish. “I always tell them to study, go to school, get ahead in life.”
An increase in deportations that started with the Obama administration and have continued under Donald Trump’s presidency left some farmers understaffed and unable to fill positions, Marsh said. Farmers have often turned to H-2A to replace workers who had to be let go due to immigration sweeps.
Dairies are not eligible for the H-2A program as the work is year-round.
“This has been a problem for a long time. We hear dairymen say they’re struggling to fill positions,” said Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. “That’s why we want Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and extend a visa program to help fill these jobs.”
Bastidas twisted a tissue in her hand as she spoke. Her father died four years ago and she wasn’t able to visit him or attend his funeral. She said the recent talk of raids scares her and her fellow field workers, but she has to continue living her life.
“It would be a lie to say I’m not scared,” she said. “It’s not easy for us but we have to keep working. We have to pay rent and eat.”
If the trend continues
Mike Gaxiola grew up on a farm in Murtaugh and still runs a business hauling potatoes and sugar beets during harvest time. He’s seen a lot of change since he was growing up.
“You’ve got probes, drones, a lot of new technology. There’s sugar beets that don’t need as much weeding,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you still need people out there hauling and harvesting to get it done.”
If farmers continue to struggle to hire workers, they may have to incentivize prospective employees by offering higher wages or offering more benefits, Capps said.
A long-term consequence is farmers moving their businesses to other parts of the world.
“Companies have got wise to this and figured they could pay $13.48 an hour in Idaho or they can pay $7 a day,” Marsh said. “It doesn’t take much to figure out that it’s cheaper to move their business overseas.”
Gaxiola also works with Youth Build, a program at the Community Council of Idaho that works with at-risk youth and puts them through job training. He said he hasn’t heard much interest in agriculture from young people, but he thinks that could change.
“We used to have to turn all the pivots on manually, now you can look on your phone,” Gaxiola said. “If you can get young people to see what agriculture can offer and what it is now I think more of them will be interested.”
While consumers will likely always have fresh fruit, milk and vegetables, a continuing shortage can mean relying on other countries for food.
“If you have food security, you have national security,” Marsh said. “We do not want the country to be in a position where we need to rely on someone else for food.