It is night when the day begins.
At 4:30 a.m. in a dusty farming town in California's San Joaquin Valley, the lights are on in a one-room house no bigger than a garage. Inside, Isabel makes tortillas and beans for the workday ahead, while her husband, Vicente, puts on his farmworker's uniform of long pants, long-sleeved shirt, work boots, and a baseball cap. Much of the town of Arvin is awake by now: The local panaderias -- Mexican bakeries -- open at 5 a.m., as do the small markets where farmworkers buy gas and pick up coffee before heading to the fields.
By 5:40, Isabel and Vicente have joined a caravan of more than 40 cars, vans, and pickup trucks, with their lights on, rolling past acres of grapes, potatoes, and onions. The road turns from potholed concrete to sand before dead-ending at a line of cherry trees that seems to stretch for miles. As some 200 farmworkers, in groups of three and four and five, walk down a dirt path into the fields, Isabel secures the shield of bandannas she wears to protect her skin from the sun and dust: One ties around the top of her head while the second falls down the back of her neck, like a tent flap. The third is fastened bandit-style, high and tight over her nose and mouth.
Vicente will spend the day on a 12-foot ladder, pulling bunches of cherries from the tops of the trees, while Isabel twists the fruit off the branches below. Over the next seven hours, with one 15-minute break, Vicente will pick more than 100 pounds of cherries, dumping them into deep trays harnessed to his shoulders. His pay will depend on how quickly he can fill the trays. No matter how fast he works, it's often less than minimum wage.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which portrayed the struggles of Okie migrants at Weedpatch Camp just a few miles from Arvin, drew national attention to the plight of California farmworkers in the 1930s. In the '60s, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers made the problems of the fields a part of dinner-table conversations nationwide. But though some union victories of the 1970s remain in place, conditions for farmworkers have grown more bleak in the past two decades. Real farm wages have fallen a full 10 percent since the '80s; in 1998, when the most recent survey was conducted, the average field worker made $7,500 a year and had no health insurance or other benefits.
Vicente is 30 years old, short and strong, with a small mustache, a straight-ahead gaze, and a kind, slightly reserved manner; like the other farmworkers interviewed for this story, he didn't want his last name used. For 14 years, he has worked blueberries, cherries, grapes, oranges, watermelons, and onions. A scar wraps around his left index finger from the time he cut it to the bone with pruning shears. His ankle bears another scar, from the day he stepped on a blade in the onion fields. One summer he slept atop a flattened cardboard box in a vineyard. Another year, he lived in a two-room house near Santa Barbara with about 50 other men -- "lined up like pigs," he says with a small smile. For eight years, Vicente followed the migratory route that Mexicans have traveled since they first came to the California fields in the 1940s: He would enter the United States for the harvest and return to Oaxaca each winter to be with his family and build a house.
But that changed six years ago, when Vicente paid a coyote $1,200 and filled a backpack with gallon jugs of water, tortillas, canned beans, and two changes of clothes for himself and Isabel, who was 14 years old and five months pregnant. They left behind photos and mementos. ("If they catch you," Vicente says of the Border Patrol, "they'll take anything from you, even pennies.") Along with about 30 other migrants, Vicente and Isabel hiked across Arizona's Sonoran Desert for three nights, sleeping and hiding out during the day, when temperatures can reach 110 degrees.
The Sonoran Desert has been called "the cruelest place on earth." Last year, 409 immigrants died trying to get across -- a sevenfold increase since 1995. Heightened border controls that began under the Clinton administration and escalated after 9/11 have effectively shut down migrant crossings near San Diego and El Paso, pushing migrants to ever more remote routes. Yet even now, with the Border Patrol's budget and manpower at an all-time high, about 800,000 undocumented immigrants arrive in the United States annually, up from 500,000 a decade ago, according to the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. A full 60 percent of them come from Mexico.
Many of those immigrants, like Vicente and Isabel, have no plans to go home again. "In the last 10 years, the rate of return to Mexico has fallen through the floor," says Douglas S. Massey, codirector of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University. "The risk of crossing isn't high enough not to come at all, but it's made immigrants think twice about going back and forth." In 2000, only 1 in 10 undocumented immigrants returned to Mexico within a year, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a San Francisco think tank -- almost 50 percent fewer than in 1992. In its effort to lock people out, the U.S. government has instead locked them in.
Initially, Vicente and Isabel did plan to return to Mexico, once they saved enough money. But then they had children -- a son, now five, and two daughters, ages four and three -- and migrating home became too expensive (coyote fees have tripled, to more than $3,000 per person, since Vicente first crossed in the early 1990s) and too dangerous. The longer the family stayed in the United States, the less they wanted to leave.
Their story is like those of tens of thousands of farmworkers who once shuttled between Mexico and the United States. Migrants have settled because of the tighter borders, because of a 1986 amnesty program that legalized 1.1 million farmworkers, and because of changes in agriculture: The fruits and vegetables consumers now demand -- strawberries, lettuce, broccoli -- are more labor-intensive than the rice and cotton that once dominated the fields. And new harvesting methods have allowed growers to plant multiple crops in succession, providing work in some places for nine months or more each year.