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Tighter border yielding more illegal immigrants
October 11, 2003

By Eduardo Porter

STOCKTON, Calif. - Something unusual is happening among the illegal immigrants who work in the lush fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Instead of leaving after the harvest, as they did for years, they are staying here, settling into lives of poverty and putting new strains on the city.

Through jobless winter months, immigrant farmworkers cluster in run-down apartments, sleeping on mattresses, sofas and rugs. In one blue clapboard house on a leafy street near downtown, about 30 immigrant farmworkers from Oxtotitlan, Mexico, pack into three apartments.

Most of them aren't going anywhere. "Maybe I'll stay for 10 more years, or 15," says Cristobal Silverio, 42, who lives in one of the apartments with his wife, four young children and half a dozen recent arrivals from his hometown.

Stockton's schools have become crowded with Spanish-speaking students. One local charity reports that demand for Christmas food baskets has tripled in the past two years, in large part because Mexican workers no longer go home for the holidays. The county hospital faces a budget crunch as it treats an exploding number of uninsured patients.

Stricter policing of the U.S. border - begun in the 1990s and reinforced in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001 - was supposed to stem the flood of illegal immigrants arriving in the United States. Instead, in Stockton and other places, it is having an entirely different effect.

Travel risky, so they stay

Illegal immigrants are still willing to risk crossing the border between the United States and Mexico, arriving at a rate of about 400,000 a year, by some estimates. But as the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled since 1995, the price of an illegal crossing has roughly tripled to about $1,500 for a three-day trek across the Arizona desert. As a result, many immigrants have cut out much of the back-and-forth travel and decided to stay put in the United States.

The result is a more-permanent unauthorized population than ever before, says Douglas Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies surveys of communities in Mexico and the United States. In the early 1980s, the average stay of an undocumented Mexican worker was three years, Massey says. By the late 1990s, it climbed to nine years.

The California Public Policy Institute reports that only about 11 percent of the illegal immigrants who arrived in 1998 returned home within a year, down from roughly 30 percent in 1990. Meanwhile, the percentage of undocumented immigrants who say they plan to stay in the United States "as long as possible" jumped from 59 percent in the mid-1990s to 67 percent at the end of the decade, according to surveys by the Mexican National Population Council.

"The militarization of the border hasn't stopped the people from coming. It just drove up the cost and the risk," says Massey. "The response of migrants was to stop going home, and the result was a big growth of the Mexican population here."

Just as crossing the border has gotten tougher for illegal immigrants, settling here has become easier. Undocumented farmworkers used to exist in a constant state of anxiety, alert for the first sign of an immigration raid. But while security has tightened along the border, it has gone slack in many of the communities where migrants work.

"We haven't done workplace enforcement for years," says Robert Logazino, head of the Border Patrol's Northern California sector office in Livermore. "We're in the process of being closed down here." Priorities have shifted in law enforcement. Instead of raiding fields and factories, agents for the Immigration and Naturalization Service - now folded into the Department of Homeland Security along with the Border Patrol - are mostly assigned to investigate smuggling rings and patrol high-profile sites such as airports.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit, says immigration authorities have no definitive numbers on the settlement patterns of the illegal-immigrant population. But she says the pattern of border apprehensions "suggests that (illegal immigrants) are making the decision not to go back and forth as readily as they once did."

As permanent populations of unauthorized laborers replace what was once a temporary, mostly male work force, the immigrants are often trapped by poverty. They are also transforming many U.S. communities.

The changing migratory pattern is on clear display in Stockton, a city of 244,000. Checkered with sprawling farms that produce apples, pears, tomatoes and more, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the nation's most productive farming regions, accounting for about half of California's $27 billion in agricultural production.

Once here, they feel stuck

Mexican farmworkers have come here at least since the Bracero program of the 1940s, when young men lived in labor camps by the edge of the fields throughout the state. By the late 1990s, 91 percent of California's farmworkers were born in Mexico, and 42 percent were illegal immigrants, according to a Department of Labor survey.

Once here, they feel stuck. "People would like to return more often to Mexico," says Luis Rivera, a community worker at California Rural Legal Assistance. "But they are afraid because they see the stories on TV about migrants dying in the desert" trying to come across.

In many cases, the settlers are settling into poverty. Weighed down by a steady supply of immigrant labor, hourly wages in the fields fell from $6.98 in 1989 to $6.18 in 1998, in constant 1998 dollars, according to the Labor Department. In 1997, about three-quarters of illegal-immigrant farmworkers earned less than $10,000 a year.

In Stockton, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city's poverty rate climbed by nearly 30 percent during the 1990s. By 1999, almost a quarter of the city's residents lived below the poverty line. Among noncitizens, the poverty rate was 38 percent in 1999.

Working last spring at the Macklin vineyards in nearby Linden, Cristobal Silverio and his wife earned $100 each on good days. Often, they made less than half of that. In all, they say, they earned about $18,000 last year, well under the poverty line of $24,260 for a family of six.