This is the latest installment of our series on the new American economy,“How the Deck Is Stacked,” reported in conjunction with Frontline and PBS NewsHour.
At an apple orchard in Central Washington, a few Silicon Valley tech-types are huddled over a laptop, examining a Rube Goldberg-esque machine.
Dan Steere is co-founder of Abundant Robotics, where his team has created a machine that completes a simple task: “Find a delicate piece of fruit, get it off of a tree and then get it into a bin without beating it up,” Steere said.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s a lot harder than it seems. Right now, the machine can only pick one apple a second. Steere and his team plan on improving that rate before putting it on the market.
The commercial machine is still several years away, but it’s already gotten the attention of farmers for one reason. Steere said one machine can replace about 30 people.
Rod Farrow from Lamont Fruit in Waterport, New York, is already intrigued by its potential and made a 2,500-mile journey to see the robot in action. He employs 100 pickers at his apple orchard, but those pickers are getting harder and harder to find.
Rod Farrow: Without a good guest worker program, and that’s been the real issue the last 10 years, we’ll be slowly going out of business.
Kai Ryssdal: How long do you think?
Rod Farrow: Unless we get a change in administration policy on how they are going to treat guest worker programs, 10 years, maybe.
Kai Ryssdal: So when you think about this election and your business…
Rod Farrow: [laughs] No good answer. It’s a shame.
The H-2A guest worker program Farrow mentioned brings migrant workers from Mexico and other qualifying countries, legally, to work on farms in the U.S. The H-2A program — and immigration in general — is a big concern in Central Washington right now. It’s creating unlikely bedfellows, and making the decision on whom to vote for, even deep in Washington’s resoundingly red territory, an irksome one.
If you drive through Central Washington, you’ll notice a few things: breathtaking views, changing leaves on trees, apples in every direction and plenty of “Trump for President” signs.
The Cascade Mountains split Washington geographically, but also politically and economically as well.
Two of Washington’s key industries are agriculture and tech, and they also happen to be the two largest employers of immigrants in the state. The state may not matter to the presidential election, but the election certainly matters to the state.
At Loftus Ranches, an apple and hops farm in Yakima, Washington, owned by the Smith family, apples are grown in neat long rows in a new style of orchard planting.
Ingenuity has helped Washington grow bigger, better apples — 12 billion come out of the state each year — but until that robotic picker hits the market, almost every single one will be plucked from the tree by hands of migrant workers.
Harvesting apples and hops is back-breaking work. Workers climb ladders and fill bushels strapped to their chest until they reach more than 40 pounds. During peak apple-picking season, 300-400 workers are out in the fields, with some pulling 80-hour weeks.
Even though the work is seasonal, many of the guys that work at Loftus Ranches come back year after year. Rogelio Delgado has been on the farm since 1988 and worked his way up from field hand to supervisor in those 28 years.
Kai Ryssdal: How did you first come here?
Rogelio Delgado: The first time I swim. The second time I pass under the ground, the third time I cross a fence, fourth time I pass under the city by the sewers. Start over there in Nogales, Mexico, all the way to the other side of Nogales, Arizona…
Kai Ryssdal: And then walked through the desert?
Rogelio Delgado: Yeah, for one week. It was fun.
Even though a day’s work on a farm in the U.S. pays eight times the going rate in Mexico, the Smiths said every year, it’s harder and harder to find enough workers. The labor shortage is complicated by the fact that local people do not want these jobs.
“The flow of illegal immigration into this country has really subsided, we’ve noticed, over the last decade or so,” Mike Smith said. “We would have people coming to look for work all the time who were newly in the country and most likely illegally. So over the past few years, we haven’t had that influx.”
That’s because of immigration policy and border security, of course, but also rising economic fortunes in rural Mexico. To make sure they have enough workers, farmers are increasingly relying on the H-2A Visa program.
It lets employers recruit seasonal workers from Mexico legally, but it’s expensive.
“It’s $1,300 for us per worker for us to get them here,” Mike Smith said. “We have to pay the visa, we have to pay the transportation from wherever their town in Mexico is to the border, we pay their transportation from the border to here. We’ve built about $300,000 worth of housing about 20 miles south of here, we’re building another $500,000 worth of housing on our farm this year. If we had a local source and enough people to get what we need done, when we need it done, we probably wouldn’t use this program. But what we get from these people is a hell of a good day’s work.”
Loftus Ranches is a big operation, so the H-2A program is worth the price tag, but for smaller farms it’s virtually impossible to afford.
Burr and Rosella Mosby run a 350-acre farm where they grow zucchini, beets, leeks and squash in Auburn, Washington. They said they’re consistently 15 percent short on workers, which leaves money on the table. Like the Smiths, they pay above the state minimum wage, but local American workers aren’t interested.
Rosella Mosby: In the last recession, we had probably four domestic workers apply for work. And maybe they made it for a day, maybe finish the week. And then left. So we supplemented our weeding crew with a temp work agency. So we pretty much got 60 percent production for 20 percent more cost.
Burr Mosby: The American grower should not be saddled with not being able to get enough people. Thing is, these are jobs no one else wants to do. We don’t like to work that hard.
Kai Ryssdal: What happens to Mosby Farms if you guys run 15 [percent below on workers]?
Burr Mosby: Well, then, we end up going through fields that we can’t pick every day. Zucchini grows in the hot summer day. You pick every day to keep your grade up. You have a medium and a fancy size. So if we can’t come back within 24 hours and pick that again, our fancy size is gonna turn into our medium size. Our medium size turns into our extra large size. Nobody wants that big ones. They grow that fast.
Rosella Mosby said it’s shocking to her how few farmers can use the visa program.
“What I think is incredible, we wouldn’t build cars or skyscrapers using this kind of system, yet we depend on this system to supply food for our country,” Rosella said.
There is one source of labor that, according to the Mosbys, has helped keep the farm afloat all these years: the Salazar family.
Eighty-two-year-old migrant worker and great grandfather Manuel Salazar has been working on the farm since the early ‘90s. Two years ago Manuel suffered a stroke. He took a week off work and then came back.
Across the farm, workers are washing and boxing beets pulled from the ground. Overseeing them all is Manuel’s son, Osvaldo. He came to the farm in 1992, a few years after his dad. He’s now a foreman on the farm, a United States citizen and a homeowner with his wife. Osvaldo and his wife raised their kids in the area, including his 29-year-old daughter, Adriana. She’s the third generation to work on Mosby Farms.
Adriana has three kids of her own, but hopes they don’t have to work at Mosby Farms.
“I really want them to have more than what I have done. I want them to go to school, go to college, get a good job.”
Manuel still goes back to Mexico in the off-season here, but his son Osvaldo has laid down roots and his granddaughter Adriana is hoping that the fourth generation of the Salazar family will leave farm work behind.
Each generation hopes to move up a rung on the ladder.
To the other side of the Cascades...
One man's path to citizenship
Thirty-two-year-old Lazaro Carrion has been avoiding the Department of Homeland Security most of his life.
“The Department of Homeland Security is one of those, like, you don’t want to see it, you don’t want to acknowledge it, it’s taboo, don’t even bring it up.”
But a few weeks ago, that changed when Carrion walked into the Homeland Security Field Office outside of Seattle to finally become a U.S. citizen.
Carrion works at a startup in downtown Seattle called Remitly as a marketing manager. Before that title, the only label that mattered in his life was “undocumented.”
Carrion has been in the U.S. since he was 7 years old.
“I cried to my parents, and they let me come with my aunt on vacation. Soon enough, our vacation turned into a longer stay,” Carrion said. “My parents then came over, and over the course of the years, it just became a situation we stayed because we knew the education here was better. My sisters and I, we took our education seriously and so that was a priority for my family. We decided to stay.”
Like the rest of his family, Carrion was undocumented, but since he did well in school, he was able to receive a full scholarship to a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington.
He found creative ways to pay for everything else.
“I used to be the barber on campus. I used to cut hair. Instead of charging people a fixed rate, I started taking donations,” Carrion said.
After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree, Carrion wasn’t able to get a job. He thought his best option was to apply for a visa — but that meant moving back to Mexico and waiting in line.
Carrion remembers telling his parents he wanted to go back to Mexico.
“They thought I wasn’t being serious. I’ve played it safe most of my life, and when it came down to making that decision, I told them, ‘I bought my one-way ticket. I don’t know when I’m coming back, but I’ll see you when I return.’ I was there for four years. It was a situation where I applied for my visa, got denied. Actually got barred 10 years. Got a lawyer, because I was previously in this country as an undocumented immigrant.”
Carrion’s legal journey back to America was sped up a bit when he married his college girlfriend, who is an American citizen. When it finally ended in citizenship a few weeks ago, he said he breathed a deep 20-year sigh of relief.
“Definitely a good day and a little bittersweet. It was just one of those events where you want your entire family, your cousins, your friends to join you.”
Remitly, Carrion’s employer, is, coincidentally, a business built for immigrants.
A few years ago, co-founder Matt Oppenheimer was working in Nairobi, Kenya, for an international bank.
“There’s extreme poverty in Kenya and a lot of countries like that, and one thing that was very apparent was that remittances were this lifeline for people,” Oppenheimer said. “There’s $600 billion in remittances that are sent every year, which is multiples larger than things like foreign aid.”
Remittances are money sent from one country to another, but despite how important they are, remittances have not historically been easy to send and receive.
“I saw that while it was this lifeline, it was really expensive, really painful, all the things you think of when you think of remittances. People were increasingly using mobile phones to send money internationally, and so I said, ‘There has to be a better way to do this.’”
When Oppenheimer came back to the U.S., he launched Remitly. Its app lets people send money back home — taking a small fee for certain transactions.
But it’s not just a business built for immigrants, it’s a business built in large part by immigrants.
Co-founder Shivaas Gulati came to the U.S. on a student visa and received his master’s degree. When Gulati and Oppenheimer started developing the company, Gulati went back to India to get married and to get a visa that allowed him to work in the U.S.
Instead, he was stuck.
“That kind of led us to this whole immigration rathole of, ‘How do you get someone on an immigration visa to, you know, be a co-founder?’ I ended up spending five months there,” Gulati said.
Oppenheimer knew he needed to do something.
“He was a crucial part of the company. It was only me and him.”
He got on a plane, flew 22 hours to Delhi, India, and showed up at the United States Embassy to prove that the fledgling company was legit.
“The entrepreneur in me, I didn’t want to give up,” Oppenheimer said.
After months of not hearing anything, Gulati was granted an H-1B visa.
The red tape didn’t just impede the start of Remitly, Oppenheimer said, it has also impacted the ability to scale up properly.
“The fallacy that people are taking American jobs. We, I said, are close to a hundred people,” Oppenheimer said. “We have lots of open roles right now, and we have a very high bar for the talent that we recruit.”
Michael Schutzler is CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, a trade association that represents the state’s 9,000 tech companies. He said the tech and agriculture industries are fighting the same battle.
“We are strange bedfellows with the agricultural industry in the state. When I speak to my counterparts in the agricultural side, we see the world the same way,” Schutzler said. “This is a world of abundance. This is a world about creation. The immigrant workforce creates opportunity sets for the domestic workforce. It doesn’t take it away, it actually creates it.”
“Seventy-five percent of the startups in our industry, funded by
venture capital, are founded by immigrants,” Schutzler said. ”They’re the ones creating jobs for Americans. If we want to have a really viable tech ecosystem, we need to allow those immigrants who want to start companies to do so.”
The first thing you do when you’re about to become an American citizen at the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship field office in suburban Seattle is sit through a not-so-subtle patriotic slideshow. There are photos of people from all over the world, every color, every creed, smiling and waving American flags.
An Immigration Services official then takes the stage, and those in the crowd stand up.
Every weekday at this office, dozens of immigrants, each with their own story and their own reasons, become citizens.
This time, was Lazaro Carrion was one of them.
“The story, my experience, it’s not a stand-alone story in the U.S. It’s one many people share. It’s one that some people choose not to share because they’re afraid, and that is very unfortunate. I think we all have a voice that needs to be heard.”
This piece was produced by Marketplace’s Elections Desk: Tommy Andres, Caitlin Esch and Raghu Manavalan, with engineer Daniel Ramirez. Photos and videos by Tommy Andres.