California’s Forbidden Workers: why do Mexican Immigrants searching for better lives get exploited for their labor?

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This is a worker who has been hired for the day to pick strawberries at this farm in Santa Maria, California. This picture was taken by Allie Ferguson for KPCC news.
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What You Need To Know

To first understand this issue, I need to take you back to the Mexican Drug War. The War on Drugs in Mexico between the government and cartels began in 2006; in addition, the issues brought about by cartels in Mexico and other Latin American countries have been affecting the U.S. since the early 1970’s. In 2006, when the newly elected President Caldéron entered office, he immediately vowed to end the reign of the cartels (Liu). Unfortunately, the tactics President Caldéron deployed hardly worked. This ultimately created violent turf wars between the government and rival cartels throughout Mexico.

Mexico is located along the southern side of the western United States. It borders the states of Texas, Arizona, California, and New Mexico. Image from Geoscience News.

This war between the government and cartels got many innocent families involved, and they wanted no part in this violence. According to a journal in Latin American Research Review, “Mexicans are migrating because of security issues, in fear of drug-related violence and extortion that has spiked since 2008” (Contreras 199). Although Mexico was not the only country dealing with a drug epidemic; Colombia went through the same issue only 20 years prior. Many people from Colombia migrated to the United States. This influx of people searching for safer lives brought a major workforce. 


The data shown reflects the number of unauthorized immigrants that entered the United States. As you can see from the graph, in 2007 the majority of unauthorized immigrants came from Mexico, and that is no coincidence. The war in Mexico was brutal, and this data from the Pew Research center portrays the desire to leave perfectly.

According to the data in a newspaper article published in 1988, “Most of the new jobs created in the business of manufacturing had been fulfilled by people that identify themselves as Hispanic,” and this same pattern can be seen with Mexican immigrants (Fogel). The majority of jobs these immigrants were taking were not, by any mean, desirable. Data showed that the jobs taken by these immigrants are not seen as “living wages” (Fogel). Since the beginning of the United States, immigrants have been exploited for their labor, and that is a pattern that has continued to today. These people that provide a major workforce for this nation are being subjected to poverty, malnutrition, and homelessness because of the conditions we as citizens continue to feed (Huey). With intensive heat and minimal pay, immigrants in California are struggling to make enough money to survive (Nevárez). Mexican immigrants in Fresno, California are especially prone to poverty and law wage jobs (Immigration in the Central Valley). 

Photo from Town Map USA.

Fresno, being in the Central Valley, offers many opportunities for immigrants to find  work on farms during the spring and summer seasons. Although these people can work jobs, many of them are being exploited for their labor and can not do anything about it (Lopez). Their employers often blackmail them and threaten to get them deported, so the immigrants work. This issue creates widespread poverty in immigrant communities. Furthermore, many children are unable to get a suitable education, proper nutrition, and clothing. Many families are doing anything they can to get a job. Fortunately, the future is not bleak; there are organizations that are striving to end this widespread problem. 

Image from Immigrant Fresno

In February of 2014, an organization called The Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC) was founded to assist immigrants in California (Immigration in the Central Valley). The CVIIC is a group that stands up for immigrant lives and rights. They provide food, clothing, and other material objects. Most importantly, the CVIIC gives presentations to educate immigrants about everything they need to know to live in the United States, such as law, English and literacy, and how to apply for citizenship. This group, along with a network of other organizations, have been speaking out about the exploitation of labor immigrants face. They are pushing California lawmakers to pass bills that would give immigrants the ability to seek equal pay without fear of being detained or held captive (Immigration in the Central Valley).

What Can You Do?

To reach a future where immigrants are not being exploited for their work, people across California need to be informed and take a stand against this issue. One way people could help is by donating to organizations such as CVIIC. Donations to these organizations help tremendously because they are non-profits. They rely on fundraising events and donations to be able to assist those who need it. They also rely on clothing donations as one of the major aspects of their campaign; without the donations, they would not be able to dress those who cannot afford clothes themselves.

The second thing you can do is write to your local lawmaker in hopes of them presenting and potentially drafting a new law, which is what I am currently working on. If you write to your local representative and have enough people that do it with you, that representative might be able to propose an idea. After all, they are supposed to represent the community they reside in. 

What would hopefully occur from writing to your local lawmaker is a change in the law. Labor laws need to be created/adapted to drop the stigma that people have around Mexican immigrants. They are not criminals, here to take our jobs, or looking to start trouble (Nevárez). Labor laws need to be adapted and more heavily enforced in a way that prohibits unequal payment to those who are being exploited for their labor.

Now I want you to think about the fruits and vegetables that you consume. Where is your food sourced from? Does the company that you are buying that produce from continue to expand this issue? Especially for those of you who live in California, who actually harvested that food?

To do your own research, or to see the sources I used click here.



Student at Head-Royce School, Oakland, CA USA

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