From a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, and from a kitchen table in East Los Angeles, from a flophouse in a coastal farming town, to a strip-mall in Phoenix, Arizona, these are snapshots of illegal immigration in America. It’s estimated that as many as 12 million people are living in United States illegally, but this story is about just two.
An American lit major named Ilse, and a strawberry picker named Filemon. They know that many do not want them here. But for different reasons they’re staying. Their lives are testaments to both the power of the American dream and the absolute failure of America’s immigration policies.
23 year old Ilse Escobar grew up in Los Angeles and remembers well her first visit to the UCLA campus. In many ways Ilse is a typical American college student, but in one important way Ilse is very different. Ilse’s family crossed the border from Mexico into the United States when she was just 3 years old. She’s considered an illegal immigrant in the only country she’s ever known.
Ilse is one of approximately 200 undocumented students at UCLA. Despite their illegal status the state of California allows these students to attend its public universities, but in just a few short months Ilse will graduate into a country that can be far less tolerant. News clips provide a regular reminder of how some Americans feel.
Ilse and her peers may be unafraid, emboldened and in some ways protected by their status as students at one of the country’s top schools, but just 40 miles up the coast things are very different. Oxnard, California is home to both some of the richest farmland in America and an illegal immigrant population that is anything but eager to speak its name or show its face.
The farm workers weren’t talking nor did their employers want them to. Undocumented workers in Oxnard live in the shadows. At the end of their shifts they retreat from the fields to immigrant friendly neighborhoods where they often live in flophouses, trailers or dormitory styled residences. They believe there’s safety in numbers.
No one knows exactly what percentage of farm workers in Oxnard are there illegally. Nationally, undocumented workers are estimated to make up as much as 70% of the agricultural workforce. The workers pick for some of the biggest brands in the produce industry. In Oxnard one crop is king. More strawberries are grown there than anywhere else in California. A state that produces 88% of this country’s strawberries, and every one of them is picked by hand.
Strawberry fields are among the most backbreaking to harvest. Workers spend long days hunched over, their skin covered to protect against both the sun and pesticides. A fruits of their labor yield a state’s produce industry an estimated $2 billion a year. Filemon was the only undocumented farm worker who seemed willing to speak in front of the camera.
Not far from the strawberry fields, there is a neighborhood in south Oxnard, which from the street looks like a typical working class suburb, but in fact it’s overpopulated with undocumented farm workers who live in awful conditions.