Counting the Uncountable

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Counting the Uncountable

Immigrant and Migrant, Documented and Undocumented Farm Workers in California

Book excerpt

By: Victor Garcia

Date: April 1992

Source: Garcia, Victor. Counting the Uncountable, Immigrant and Migrant, Documented and Undocumented Farm Workers in California. Washington, D.C.: GPO/Census Bureau, 1992.

About the Author: Victor Garcia is a Professor of Anthropology at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He has conducted many statistical projects for the United States Bureau of the Census.


This report extract was taken from a special Census Bureau exercise to enumerate the Mexican and Mexican American resident households in California in 1990, using an ethnographic approach which collected detailed information on household characteristics in a sample area. Such exercises are often carried out in order to improve estimates of immigrant populations, which are often undercounted in the official Census. The Census requires respondents to complete a form with details of their household composition and basic characteristics, but some immigrants are unable or unwilling to provide this information, either because of language or literacy difficulties, or because they fear losing welfare benefits or being arrested for immigration offences if they provide the information requested. Accurate population estimates are needed by Federal and State governments in order to plan adequate public services and infrastructure and also to understand the nature of immigration and settlement in the United States.

Mexican resident households in California represent a section of the population for which it is difficult to obtain accurate information on numbers and characteristics. However, it is particularly important to obtain information about this group in order to plan social and economic policies and state budgets. As the ethnographic description shows, they are often economically disadvantaged, extremely poor and heavily dependent on public welfare. At the same time, their communities are connected in various ways with the problem of undocumented migration from Mexico, an issue which is of paramount concern to the government.

Permanent settlements of Mexican farm-worker communities first developed in California and other border states from the mid-1960s onwards, when the Bracero Program of 1944–1964 was terminated. Under this program, Mexicans had been brought into the United States to work for temporary periods in seasonal agricultural, but had generally returned to Mexico when their contracts ended. When the scheme was closed, local agricultural growers who feared shortages of low-cost labor helped many of the former Bracero workers to settle permanently in the United States, bringing their families with them. Over the following years, Mexicans continued to cross the border in large numbers to meet the continuing demand for cheap labor, many of them entering illegally as undocumented migrants, and the Mexican communities in California and other states continued to grow. The majority of the migrants who entered before 1986 acquired legal residence in the United States under The Special Agricultural Workers' Program (SAW) of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). This amnesty program was introduced by Congress in response to concerns that the new sanctions which were to be imposed on employers for hiring undocumented migrants would lead to severe shortages of labor, especially in agriculture. Overall, more than a million illegal immigrants were granted legal status under the program.

From the outset, the Mexican farm-worker communities have suffered greatly from exploitation by unscrupulous employers and middle-men, from a declining agricultural sector which cannot offer regular or full-time employment, and by a continuing influx of undocumented migrants from Mexico, who undercut the wages of the settled farm-workers. At the same time, some of these communities may be facilitating undocumented migration from Mexico, by providing a network of informants about job opportunities and providing their temporary accommodation to unauthorized migrants from Mexico.

Although most of the residents of the farm-worker communities have legal permanent residency in the United States, they are disadvantaged by being segregated in communities where the opportunities to acquire English language and employment-related skills are very poor. Some households have been able to improve their situation, usually by acquiring jobs in other sectors of the economy, but many remain heavily dependent on intermittent farm work and public benefits and are desperately poor.


The population in the ethnographic site is primarily made up of Mexican and Mexican American farm worker households who reside in a Californian farming community on a permanent basis. These proletariat households have no or few ties to the peasant economy in Mexico. In other words, the households are not comprised of peasant migrants who come to mind when we think of farm workers in California. Farm worker householders at the site do not pack up and leave when the harvest is poor or over, do not move to another harvest site nor do they return to a home base in Mexico. This California community is their home. However, some temporary household members, called arrimados in Spanish and who are related to the householder and spouse through kinship, reside locally during the lettuce harvest and return to Mexico after the season….

The sample area is located in a new housing development in the western half of the farm worker town. The homes in this neighborhood are the newest in the community. The first dwellings were built in 1980; the most recent ones in 1986. Unlike residences in other neighborhoods, most of which were constructed immediately after World War II, the houses of the sample area are in excellent condition. Houses are structurally sound and well maintained. In addition, unlike other residences in the community, the properties are not altered to accommodate more people: they do not have illegal add-on rooms, secondary units in backyards, and garages converted into bedrooms….

Recently, the community has suffered from chronic economic blight. The closure of nearly all of the agricultural enterprises in town coupled with changes in field production—which favor migrant workers over resident laborers—have resulted in a loss of city revenues and in greater unemployment and underemployment of the resident farm worker population.

According to preliminary 1990 Census data, the town has about 5,500 inhabitants, nearly eighty-five percent are of Mexican descent; a little under ten percent are of Asian extraction, mainly Japanese and Filipinos; the remainder are "white." Data from a 1988 survey reveal that the Mexican descent population is relatively young—the average age is twenty-six years (Garcia, N.D.). The data also shows that a significant number of the Mexican descent population are ex-braceros [contracted workers] and their children. They and their children emigrated from the rural Central Plateau Region of Mexico where they had been campesinos [peasants] who practiced subsistence and cash-crop farming. Except for a common regional origin, this population has highly heterogeneous social characteristics, as it is comprised of both U.S. citizens and Mexican citizens who are permanent U.S. residents, Catholics and Protestants, lower and middle class, monolingual English and monolingual Spanish speakers, and bilingual speakers of both Spanish and English.

Resident farm workers work when they are able to find employment. The common vicissitudes of farm work—the weather and the commodity market—too often prevent local farm workers from obtaining gainful employment year-round. In addition, growers and other agricultural producers prefer to hire migratory labor which is highly exploitable and, as a result, resident workers have become a reserve labor force in the Valley. Resident workers, on the average, work anywhere from twelve weeks to thirty-six weeks out of the year. Those work weeks are not eight hour days, five days out of the week, but range from two to ten hours, three to six days out of the week.

Matters are further complicated by the incomes earned by the majority of the resident farm workers. Since local workers do not work directly for growers, but for labor contractors, their wages are at the minimum required by law, $4.50 an hour. Consequently, annual incomes are low. Income data from the 1988 survey, cited earlier, shows that annual incomes vary significantly, from $5,000 to $50,000 a year, with an average of $13,416. These annual incomes include Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Social Security Supplement payments, unemployment compensation and disability benefits. Over half of the sample—ninety-three households—earn incomes at or below the official poverty level; and an additional forty-nine households—a little over a quarter of the sample—earn incomes that qualify them for social service programs.

The poverty that plagues farm workers manifests itself in many ways. In particular, it is obvious in their incomes, housing and home possessions, diet and nutrition, and social isolation. Their incomes are below or close to the poverty level. Their homes are often in need of repairs and are overcrowded. Their home possessions are used and inexpensive. Their diets consist of cheap foods which have very little nutritional content. They seldom can afford to attend community events. The economic plight of the farm workers is often attributed to their lack of a work ethic, but in reality their plight is the result of local labor practices adopted by growers and grower-shippers in the Valley.

The poverty and the low-income cycles that pull many of the farm worker households into their whirlwinds are broken in some cases. However, these instances are few; it seems that the only way out for them is to get out of farm work altogether. The households that are fortunate enough to escape the whirlwinds are those that have workers who are foremen, crew managers, machine operators. However, these positions are few and not available to everyone. Another way out for the households is to employ workers outside of agriculture, as laborers in assembly plants, cashiers and clerks at retail stores, clerks and typists in local government departments, and maintenance personal in many of the service establishments. However, these jobs are also limited in number, forcing many of the households to depend on farm work for their livelihood.

In spite of the poverty, the families do everything possible to keep their neighborhoods from looking run down. Homes are clean, yards are planted with roses and other flowers, and the streets are fee of litter. In addition, unlike other impoverished cities, it is not ridden with crime. In fact the local chief of police is quick to point this out, often boasting of the community's low crime rate, the lowest for a town of its size in the state. Most striking is a strong sense of community. Nearly all of the families know each other and in many cases they are related through fictive kin ties of compadrazgo, a relationship established between parents and godparents. This solidarity manifests itself on weekends, when locals get together for soccer matches and other recreational activities, and in September, when the local Mexican civic organization sponsors a parade and a three day festival to commemorate Mexican Independence Day….

The Alternative Enumeration was carried-out during a forty day period: from June 15th to June 30th, and the entire month of July 1990. After we received the match report in December 1991 from the Bureau of the Census, the follow-up research was completed from January 8th to January 16th, 1991.

The fieldwork and analysis of the Alternative Enumeration were conducted by the PI and RA. The two of us are both bilingual and bi-cultural. In fact, the RA is a native of Mexico: she was born and raised in that country. We found that our background was useful in establishing communication and building rapport with the Mexican and Mexican American households that we were not familiar with. In addition we discovered that our knowledge of the site and its residents, including their origins in Mexico, was useful in conducting the Alternative Enumeration. We knew when was the best time to make observations and to be seen strolling down the streets talking to local folks. During the week, the moments of opportunity were in the evenings after supper, and on the weekends, Saturday and Sunday afternoons….


California's agricultural industry continues to decline, exacerbating the difficulties for Mexican farm-workers. The cultivation of high-value specialty crops has become the fastest growing area in Californian agriculture in recent years, but the labor-intensive nature of this work has meant that growers have tended to favor cheaper temporary migrant labor over the agricultural workers who are resident in the area. A 1997 U.S. Department of Labor report reported that the percentage of undocumented farm-workers in the United States increased from seven percent in 1989 to thirty-seven percent in 1995.

Although concerns are often raised about the adverse impact of undocumented migrants on the pay and conditions of low-skilled native workers, it can be seen that it is actually poor immigrant communities such as the Mexican farm-worker communities of California that are often most severely affected and that are less likely to be able to improve their situation. The high levels of unemployment and under-employment in these communities suggests that there is little need for increased numbers of agricultural workers and that it is primarily the recruitment practices of growers, favoring cheap migrant labor, that are encouraging unauthorized migration. At the same time, the very existence of the Mexican settlements in the border region, and their family and kinship connections with communities within Mexico, may be a factor that is helping to facilitate continuing high levels of undocumented cross-border migration.



Garcia, Victor. Counting the Uncountable, Immigrant and Migrant, Documented and Undocumented Farm Workers in California. Washington, D.C.: GPO/Census Bureau, 1992.

Lowell, Lindsay B. ed. Foreign Temporary Workers in America: Policies That Benefit the U.S. Economy. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1999.


Rosenbaum, Rene Perez. "Toward a Criterion for Evaluating Migrant Farm Labor Policy Arguments." Policy Studies Review. 18, 2001.

Schlosser, Eric. "In the Strawberry Fields." The Atlantic Monthly. 276, 1995.