"Everybody has an opinion, although most people think food comes from Safeway," muses Ken Hajek. A dentist three days a week, Hajek offers me his opinion as a peach grower the other four days. We are talking as he stands near his white pickup on 25 acres in Lodi, where he grows peaches in an orchard tucked behind a house and a yard full of cars.
Hajek had contacted me because he objected to my call for the Bush administration to get tougher on those who knowingly employ illegal immigrants.
To start, Hajek said that he doesn't believe it is his job to serve as the employment police for the federal government. Nonetheless, he explains: "We are trying to comply. We are not 'winking and nodding.'"
His labor contractor, Brad Goehring, who joins us, requires new hires to show two documents that demonstrate they can work legally. Still, he estimates that 40 percent of workers whom he hires may be illegal -- to judge by letters sent irregularly from the Social Security Administration long after harvest to alert employers that their employees' Social Security numbers don't match the worker.
Hajek and Goehring tell me they want to follow the law, but they also need laws that ensure them access to cheap immigrant labor. Americans simply won't reliably do the work, they say.
Goehring boasts that he is a fourth-generation grape grower whose German great-grandparents started as immigrant farm laborers.
"Things just aren't going to stay the same as they were for your grandpa," responds Mark Krikorian of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration, when I phone him later. "Farmers have to face that the way autoworkers have had to face that," he said.
And, "What they're saying is, let us have this labor on the terms of the 19th century." But the world has changed, so, "They can either adjust now, or they can get it rammed down their throats later."
Krikorian has suggested that mechanization can replace cheap labor. Hajek shows me his watering system and the heavy metal pipe he moves himself -- he's 6-foot-8, by the way -- rather than hire others. He picks a green peach as he explains why machines could not do the job efficiently -- so, he says, I should not write that new technologies can do the work.
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