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Know the West

Recognizing California’s invisible activists

We are seeing a mounting intolerance toward undocumented farmworkers.


California’s distinctive character and its wealth are closely tied to its immigrants. From the early Gold Rush and railroad days, to the Central Valley’s farms and Silicon Valley’s high-tech boom, immigrants have helped make the state the sixth-largest economy in the world. California’s estimated 2.5 million undocumented immigrants make up about 10 percent of its workforce, contributing $130 billion a year to its gross domestic product — which is more than the annual GDP of 133 other countries.

The highest concentration of California’s immigrant labor is in agriculture, where nine out of 10 workers are foreign-born and more than half are undocumented. Their backbreaking toil fills produce aisles and wine racks across the state and throughout the West, as workers accept low wages, long hours and cramped living conditions in hope of bettering their lives. And yet they remain invisible and largely unwelcome. Despite the importance of multiculturalism to California’s success, non-whites are increasingly under attack. Hate crimes in the state spiked to double-digit growth in both 2016 and 2015. Of 931 hate crimes committed there last year, 519 — more than half — targeted race or ethnicity. The vast majority involved attacks on non-whites.

That intolerance coincides with President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. Arrests of immigrants without criminal records have doubled, leaving farms without the workers they need — and generally adding to America’s growing reputation as a hate-filled place. Meanwhile, Trump’s beleaguered attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has announced renewed efforts to withhold federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities. That makes undocumented immigrants increasingly hesitant to report crimes or show up to court for misdemeanors, for fear of being deported. It also makes policing harder, as people become more distrustful of beat cops and local investigators. All of this is making these communities even less visible to the rest of the world.

Editor-in-Chief Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

This issue’s cover story aims to bring the members of these communities out of the shadows. It is the product of a new initiative at High Country News, the Diverse Western Voices Award, which recognizes journalists of color who investigate the hidden corners of our region. This story, by the first recipient of the award, Los Angeles-based Contributing Editor Ruxandra Guidi, highlights the work of grassroots activists in the farmworker towns and crowded trailer parks of Southern California. As Ruxandra notes, these activists come from a long tradition of education and community service. They address exploitation and intolerance as bravely as any environmental activist, quietly and patiently moving house to house and field to field, to improve the lives of their compatriots one small step at a time. I find their work inspiring and worthy of attention, and I hope you will, too.