Immigration Delta Smelt and Undocumented Farm Workers: How Federal Policy Is Failing California's Central Valley


California's Central Valley is a 450 mile long stretch of flat and fertile land that produces much of the food that we enjoy every day. But the people in small towns like Mendota (the cantaloupe capital of the world) are suffering these days, in part due to two federal policies.

In order to protect a threatened fish species called the Delta Smelt, much of the water that used to be pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is now allowed to flow into the ocean. The result is predictable: hundreds of thousands of acres of farm land lies fallow and tens of thousands of jobs have been lost. In Mendota, the unemployment rate is over 40% and food lines are the norm.

But people going hungry in a region dominated by agriculture is only one of the contradictions in the Central Valley.

Nearly all the valley's farm workers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and many of them are undocumented. These people are crucial to the valley's economy, but they're breaking the law according to the federal government.

To learn more about the Central Valley and its discontents, we spoke to Robert Silva, mayor of Mendota; Kim Sullivan, a small business owner who makes gear drives for irrigation pumps; Maria Angel, a cafe owner and GED instructor; and Chris Collins, who recently authored a special Fresno Bee series about illegal immigration called "In Denial".

Approximately 8 minutes. Produced by Paul Feine and Alex Manning.

Visit for downloadable versions and subscribe to's YouTube channel to receive automatic notification when new material goes live.


NEXT: Gun Owner Who Showed Restraint, Good Judgment Is Apparently an Argument Against Gun Ownership

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hola amigos! Vote Democrat!

    1. The sad thing is that you thought that your comment was witty.

      1. As you did with regard to your handle.

          1. Your assumption is errant. I’m a regular here and to the best of my recollection, have never been considered a troll.

    2. It’s actually funny…

  2. What? I thought this was “The Jared Lee Loughner Network”!!! Why is this on here?!

    I’m so confused!! Give me my Jared Lee Loughner fix!!!!

    1. You know what? How about ending the “climate” of fawning over murderers in the media, instead of worrying about some violent symbolism or incivility? I bet if these guys didn’t get such an insane level of attention and publicity, they’d be more likely to just commit suicide (or get help) than go blow away innocent people.

      Obviously, I’m suggesting voluntary restraint, not an unconstitutional law.

      1. YOU’RE NOT HELPING ME, PRO!!!!!11!

        1. They don’t pay any attention to me around here, anyway. I’m sure you’ll get your miniseries on his life in a few weeks.

      2. I just saw a CBS News headline that says, “Palin Plays the Victim Card.” You’ve got to be shitting me. Half the media seems to think it’s appropriate to imply or outright state that this insane action is heavily attributable to some stupid graphic that Palin used. Obviously false, obviously solely motivated by cheap politics. Yet when Palin comes out and says, “Poor me”, she’s at fault? I’d probably be a little offended and annoyed if I were in her position.

        Fuck you, CBS. You’re just making me feel sorry for Palin, you dimwits. How about you stop screaming these lies and half-truths, and, while you’re at it, stop publicizing the murderer?

        1. I like the news stories implying that she’s an anti-Semite for using the phrase blood libel. Fucking Christ. The only way to respond is with a Hovercat.

          1. No the only proper response is what the band said: “[It’s] about the brotherhood of the mosh pit and the respect people have for each other in the pit. If you push others down, you have to pick them back up. It was never about violence. It’s about a certain amount of respect and a code.”

            1. Oh, well played!

        2. Pro Lib, stop publicizing the murderer? Isn’t that a slippery slope too?

          1. Who publicizes the publicizer?

            1. Who publicizes….

              My blog.

        3. “Palin Plays the Victim Card.”

          Holy fuck – that takes balls, like, THIS big

          *holds hands arms length apart*

          1. It’s like nuclear chutzpah.

      3. Now that’s some climate change I can get behind!


  4. Thomas Sowell had a good piece on this:

    Mascot Politics
    “Marginalized groups” are tokens, not beneficiaries, of elite self-regard.”…..mas-sowell

    So did Victor Davis Hanson:

    Two Californias
    “Abandoned farms, Third World living conditions, pervasive public assistance — welcome to the once-thriving Central Valley.”…..vis-hanson

    1. And now the old sixties throwback Moonbeam wants to raise taxes in what is already one of the most heavily taxed states in the country. The wave of productive business and citizens fleeing the state will become a tsunami. Soon it will effectively be a third world country within a country.

      1. And the over-taxed, over-regulated prductive class is replaced by this (from the second piece):

        Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards. The public hears about all sorts of tough California regulations that stymie business ? rigid zoning laws, strict building codes, constant inspections ? but apparently none of that applies out here.

        It is almost as if the more California regulates, the more it does not regulate. Its public employees prefer to go after misdemeanors in the upscale areas to justify our expensive oversight industry, while ignoring the felonies in the downtrodden areas, which are becoming feral and beyond the ability of any inspector to do anything but feel irrelevant. But in the regulators’ defense, where would one get the money to redo an ad hoc trailer park with a spider web of illegal bare wires?

  5. How hard would it be to actually kill every last smelt until there was no species left to protect?

    Oops looks like they’re extinct. Bummer. Can we turn on our fucking pumps now?

    1. Sure…keep the water flowing out to the deserts…dry up the delta and the estuary! Let nature come in and change the landscape for us to an even bigger desert! No water for anyone! yaaa!!!

  6. And what about the salmon fishermen?

    Who has more of a right to water? Farmers, or fishermen?

  7. Ah yes Reason; where one awful government policy is trashed because its readers are too stupid to know the whole truth. We shouldn’t grow a thing in CA because its a desert. No, lets support billions of wasted dollars for the Army Corp of Engineers so we can eat some wilted lettuce in January. Good on ya Reason.

    1. If it isn’t practical to farm in California, end the subsidies and people will stop on their own. What you’re saying is that the real purpose of the law, as known by anyone who’s not too stupid to understand the whole truth, was to stop all farming in California because it doesn’t make sense to farm in a desert. And that they just used the Delta Smelt as an excuse to destroy farms. IOW they lied about the law’s purpose to intentionally destroy an industry which may only exist because they subsidized it. I’m afraid you’re stupid Rick.

    2. Desert + imported water = most productive farmland in the world…. Asshole.

      1. Desert + import water + big gummint subsidies = most productive farmland in the world

        Fixed for ya!

    3. I’m not such a purist that I want to do away with irrigation, personally. I like food.

    4. It’s called “irrigation” dude. Everyone irrigates. Even rain soaked Washington irrigates. The Sumerians invented it, forchrissakes!

    5. “We shouldn’t grow a thing in CA because its a desert.”
      It *was* a desert before humans made it into the most productive land in the world.

      1. Rick longs for a simpler time.

        1. That lichen is soooo tasty for dinner.

  8. No fart jokes?

    1. Pull my finger.

    2. You smelt. You delta.

      1. Thanks

  9. Central Valley: Third World economy, San Francisco taxes.

  10. We always hear about how the United States economy would collapse if we were unable to utilize illegal immigrant labor on farms. So, how does a country like France become such an agricultural power without a steady supply of Mexicans to tend to the fields? Yes, I understand there is some immigrant labor, but it couldn’t be on the level we have here. How do they do it?

    1. Massive subsidies.

      1. Oh yeah, totally unlike the US, eh?

        1. Except for cheaper water, very little of what is grown in California receives government subsidies.

          The US subsidizes grains, sugar, and cotton. California grows fruits and vegetables.

          1. … and, in a roundabout way, labor.

          2. Right, except for water, which is such a minor thing, right? It’s only the whole subject of this video and thread.

  11. How do they do it?

    With massive government subsidies AND expensive food.

    1. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in France and didn’t find their food any more expensive than ours.

      But, do the government subsidies given to the French farmers go to school, jail, use hospitals, not pay taxes, etc.?

      I guess my bigger question is who does the farm labor if they don’t have Mexicans?

    2. Damn RC, you beat me.

      1. So the subsidies pick and pack the produce?

        1. I’m guessing it’s a mixture of french (Subsidies allow for higher wages) and Eastern European migrants.

        2. I’m not finding any hard figures online, but this NPR article is interesting.

          “Despite soaring unemployment in France, 21 percent of farmers say they have difficulty finding enough staff. That number rises to 37 percent if you’re talking about skilled help. In rural France, there are tens of thousands of permanent and seasonal job openings.”


  12. After Katrina, the Sacramento delta was identified as being one of the top flood risk areas in the country. The voters approved at least one ballot measure for bonds for flood control projects, and it has never been clear exactly what that bond money has been spent on. Today, it’s still considered one of the top flood risk areas.

    1. They actually did spend a lot of that money rebuilding some of the levees in the more vulnerable areas (i.e. just below where the Sacramento and American rivers join)

      1. That’s good to know. I tried to find info on how those bonds were being spent a few years ago, and it was incredibly hard at the time.

        1. I only know this because there was a PBS documentary on it last year. Otherwise, I would have assumed that the bond money was flushed down the toilet as it usually is… Looking forward to that 2 hr 20 minute train ride to San Francisco, though…..

  13. Delta Smelt? Is that related to the old adage “he who smelt it dealt it”?

  14. I could swear that some of that music (particularly the stuff at the beginning and 5:25) is from Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica score.

  15. “These people are crucial to the valley’s economy, but they’re breaking the law according to the federal government.”

    What part of illegal alien didn’t you understand? The laws are on the books. That they are breaking them is not some arbitrary decision of some federal agency.

    1. …law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.

  16. Not to worry. High speed rail is on the way to the Central Valley. Not sure why, exactly.

    1. I can’t wait. Yet another great move by the brilliant citizens of the Golden State.

  17. If most of the illegal alien workers were deported back to Mexico (a pipe dream in CA), someone else in the 35 mil population will eventually replace them. If “native” Americans feel too priveleged work those jobs, the market will have to adjustments to attract workers. Better pay, benefits, better technology, etc.

    The notion that a certain group holds a monopoly over parts of economy, (and that we must help them maintain that status) seems to me like the antithesis of the free market. I don’t buy the “Day without a Mexican” doomsday scenario.

    VDH’s “Two California” paints a more accurate picture of the Central Valley.

    1. The notion that a certain group holds a monopoly over parts of economy, (and that we must help them maintain that status) seems to me like the antithesis of the free market.

      In case you haven’t been paying attention, that “certain group” is citizens and their blessed legal immigrants, and the “parts of the economy” they hold a monopoly over is all of it.

      1. The second part of the video addressed illegal immigrants.

        The amnesty groups threaten (it amounts to that) that the agricultural and construction industry in the country would collapse without illegal Latino laborers. They essentially claim a monopoly over the physical labor sector of the economy, saying that other Americans won’t work those jobs. Which explains remarks like “Mexicans do jobs even blacks won’t do”.

        If 100% of Mexican workers (legal and illegal) in Central Valley quit and went back home, CA will be in some trouble. But eventually the free market will find a solution. John Stossel would say businesses would have to offer more pay and benefit to attract workers. If non Latino Americans are indeed averse to picking fruits and such, then we might outsource jobs from India or invest in better technology. I’m all for outsourcing and guest worker programs.

        The real question is why libertarians don’t apply free market principles to immigration. You can’t come work for me at my private company without meeting my personal hiring criteria – even if you’re a perfect candidate. If you don’t like my terms, you’re free to go elsewhere, and someone else will take it.

        1. The real question is why libertarians don’t apply free market principles to immigration.

          The application of free market principles to immigration leads directly to free migration.

          You can’t come work for me at my private company without meeting my personal hiring criteria – even if you’re a perfect candidate.

          I also can’t come to work for you at your private company without meeting your government’s hiring criteria – even if I’m a perfect candidate.

          If you think this describes a free market, you are greatly mistaken.

    2. Doesn’t California have overflowing prisons? Perhaps that’s a win-win solution to the labor and overcrowding issues? How much does chain cost these days?

  18. Please lock-up all the stupid government officials, environmentalists! They are all communists and fascists.
    Round them all up and send them to Haiti or Afghanistan.

    1. Spoken like a true Fascist! Gratz on that.

  19. He who smelt it delta it.

    1. Why that was not the title of this blog post I will never understand.

  20. I’m sure you’ll get your miniseries on his life in a few weeks.

  21. California is in the beginning of a bankruptcy because of the ‘progressives’ and the unions that they have sold out to. From a AAA credit rating to zero in only the last several decades that the State has been inundated with Mexican Nationals and over spending. The once Golden State is becoming the cesspool of socialist end results and now even the educated are leaving by the hundreds of thousands to other states with less taxes and more job opportunity and decent housing. From the 7th largest economy in the World to a pauper state that stinks with urine and has human eyesores laying in the streets drunk or overdosed. Welcome to the future of Socialism. The Central Valley is desolate where once bountiful, it was the envy of every nation on earth, it was the largest employer in California and fed the United States most of its winter vegetables but the stinking ‘progressives’ killed it.

  22. Victor Davis Hanson has been writing about the situation in the central valley for years. If a good description about conditions and life there is of interest, it is highly recommended reading. Go to Pajamas Media and read his columns. Start with his most recent post on the topic (within the past three weeks) and go back from there. Remarkable journalism from someone who has lived and farmed there for generations as his family did before him.

  23. How misleading. Big Gov killing jobs to save a stupid fish?

    The federal government took actions to save the rapidly declining ecosystems vital to fisheries, and other human uses using the Delta Smelts status as an Indicator Species and the EPAs rules on protection as cause. Basically the Delta Smelt was a citation to a much larger problem if humans kept pumping more and more water away with out care, not only will the Delta Smelt die (first) but then the next bigger fish and the next and the next on up to the samon and the bass that need to spawn and give the fishing industry its livelihood. Will we keep pumping water away untill the Delta is all dried up and all the birds and trees and plants that grow along it die off aswell? Clearly SOME Conservatives do not believe in “living within ones means” nor responsability.

    And are these same Conservatives worried about the anti-immigration laws that have cost tens of thousands of Agri jobs in other states????HUUUUMMM???

    Mao Zedong thought the Sparrow to be a stupid little pest too.

    Try researching:
    Indicator Species
    Sparrow Campaign

    ps…dont take ONE small fact ignorning all others and try to make an argument…this is about way more then one fish…also their water was only restricted for 8 months…and in the 8 months did Conservatives mount a Campaign to ship in water to these poor farmers? Or do they just like bitching about complex issues they know nothing about.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.