Gary Larsen has been harvesting asparagus on his farm since 1989. The vast majority of his workers are immigrants who supply documents attesting to their lawful right to live and work in the United States. Yet Larsen can’t be completely confident that their papers are genuine. “Not a day goes by that you don’t wonder,” he says. He wants to hire legal workers, but he also needs the labor. And since Americans don’t show a willingness to do the physically taxing fieldwork, he feels stuck.
Larsen wants immigration reform to streamline the complex and cumbersome guest worker program, which allows farmers to import seasonal labor. Doing this, and providing a pathway to citizenship for those workers already in the country, would increase the pool of workers Larsen could legally hire. “If we can get a stabilized workforce in the U.S.,” Larsen says, “everyone would be better off.”
Larsen feels additional support for reform thanks to his participation in Borderland, an Al Jazeera documentary that aired in 2014. On the show, Larsen physically recreated the journey of Omar, a 13-year-old boy from Guatemala who died attempting to reach the United States. Omar, Larsen learned, had earned just one dollar a day in the coffee fields of his hometown of El Porvenir. Gangs were threatening him. So Omar left to join his mother in Nevada.
If we can get a stabilized workforce in the U.S., everyone would be better off.
For the television program, Larsen crossed Mexico on the freight train La Bestia, which Omar had ridden to the U.S. border, then hiked across the Mexican desert where Omar died of exposure. The experience was harrowing. “Most of us hadn’t cried so much in a long time,” Larsen says.
The experience made it clear to Larsen that immigration reform is also a humanitarian imperative. “We need the workforce,” he says. “And for humanitarian reasons, we need a way for people to come here safely, in a reasonable amount of time.”