The Lost Boys of California

Are (Literally) Dying to Pick Your Fruit

By Lauren Markham

Ernesto, 16, works 65 hours a week harvesting crops. Here, he performs “cleanup” work at an almond grove in Madera, California. All photos by Matt Black. Reporting for this story was generously supported by the 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.

At the age when most American teenagers are trying to decide whom to ask to prom, Ernesto Valenzuela was instead weighing whether it was worse to die of thirst in the desert or have his throat slit by gangsters.

That’s the choice the 16-year-old faced in his hometown of Mapulaca, Honduras, a drowsy village where MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangsters are known for recruiting youth—sometimes as young as kindergartners—into their cartels. If the kids refuse, they are often killed. Now Ernesto was being recruited, and he didn’t want to end up one of the 6,000 people murdered each year in Honduras. With a total population just shy of 8 million, that means nearly one of every 1,000 Hondurans is a victim of homicide, making it the most dangerous place—after the war zones of Iraq, Somalia, and Syria—in the world.1

After mulling it over for months—and trying to dodge the tattooed gang members who wanted to sign him up—Ernesto decided his potential fate at home presented far more danger than what he might face at any distant desert crossing. So, early one morning in June 2013, after his mother sobbed and begged him to stay safe, he set out for a place he’d only seen in movies, a place where he’d heard a kid like himself—with just a fifth-grade education—could earn $60 a day working in the fields: America.

To make the journey, Ernesto borrowed money from older cousins who’d migrated to California several years prior. They lent him $7,000, the amount he’d need to cover bus fare from Honduras to Guatemala and up through Mexico, where he would then need to hire a coyote—a smuggler of human beings—to sneak him over the border and into Texas. The way Ernesto saw things, the mere fact that his cousins were able to loan him so much cash at once was evidence of the riches to be found on arrival at his final destination.

At first Ernesto wasn’t fazed by his lonesome journey on an endless succession of buses. It didn’t bother him that between rides he sometimes had to sleep in the streets, or, if he was lucky, a fleabag frontier hotel. He even brushed off his fellow passengers’ cautionary tales of narco violence and the countless murdered migrants who wound up in the cross fire of the cartels. But on the fifth day of his trip, he got nervous. He had arrived in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, with 14 other travelers. Only a black ribbon of water—the Rio Grande—separated Ernesto from McAllen, Texas, and a new life. But first the group had to avoid drowning to get across.

Led by their smuggler, Ernesto’s group boated across the river in a leaky sloop. They made it without capsizing, but shortly after climbing to shore, leaving a trail of soggy footprints behind them, they were spotted by US Border Patrol agents just as they were about to load into another coyote’s waiting pickup truck. The group scattered, and Ernesto sprinted into some scrub brush. He managed to evade the authorities, but in the process he’d gotten himself completely lost. For three days he and four others—three adults and another parentless boy, all from El Salvador—wandered the desert without food or water, scorched from the inside out. Lost and dying in the 90-degree heat, he no longer found the gangsters in Mapulaca so scary.

After circling through the ceaseless South Texas nowhere, all of them on the brink of collapse, the group eventually stumbled on a midsize cattle ranch. On the outskirts of the building, they found a cache of water jugs, presumably left out in the sand for hopeless migrants just like them. They guzzled all the water they could drink, left the bottles behind, and took a road leading north.

As they followed the path, Border Patrol once again spotted the bedraggled crew. This time, they were too exhausted to run. Ernesto was arrested and taken to a detention center 50-odd miles away in Harlingen, Texas, a sort of high-security youth shelter—replete with locked doors and guards—for “unaccompanied alien children” (undocumented kids who are found in the US without their parents or papers). He was placed in one of several dorm rooms alongside 200 boys who had stories much like his.

This year, because of rising crime and economic depression in Central America, the Department of Homeland Security is expecting approximately 60,000 unaccompanied minors to be captured while attempting to illegally enter the US, according to a report issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which tracks human-rights issues. That’s more than double the number that were apprehended in 2013, and more than four times the number that entered the year before. Conversely, for the past nine years, the number of adults captured while illegally entering the US from Mexico has steadily decreased—from 1.1 million in 2005 to 367,000 in 2013.2 Apparently, increased risks and ramped-up security on the US-Mexico border have deterred adults but not children. According to Jennifer Podkul of the Women’s Refugee Commission, an NGO that works with displaced women and children, a spike in violence throughout impoverished Central America is the primary force behind the rise in youth migration. As a result, the average age of the illegal migrant labor force in America is declining each year. Parentless, penniless, and homeless—what will happen to them? And what effect will they have on the US economy?

Amilcar and Junior outside their home, in Mendota

This September, three months after Ernesto was apprehended, I met him in the dusty California town of Mendota. “I’m not supposed to work,” he said. We were at a bustling swap meet where gloves, boots, and bold-colored bandannas are sold to the laborers who live in this town of 11,000 people, 97 percent of whom are Latino. But Ernesto—who has almond eyes and the thin shadow of an adolescent mustache—admitted that, even though it was illegal, he had been picking melons to survive. He was already sending money to his mother back home, and he still owed the coyotes $3,500 (because he was caught, he was able to negotiate his debt). “The judge told me I couldn’t work,” he said. “But I need to work.”

After spending more than two months incarcerated in Texas, Ernesto was released to await an official removal hearing, expected to be set in March or April of 2014. Youth detention centers along the US-­Mexico border were filling up and needed, more than ever, to cycle him out (as is customary in these shelters) and into the care of a trusted adult. While he awaited trial, he would be free, as long as he met two conditions: First, he was to be placed in the care of an older uncle and California resident named Orlando; second, he had to attend school in the interim. If he fulfilled these requirements, and could sufficiently convince a judge at his removal hearing that he’d left Honduras under the threat of violence, he might be granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and eventually become a resident. This would be a huge victory in that it would allow him to legally stay and work in America, and ultimately offer him a path to citizenship.

For this to happen, however, he faced enormous challenges, not least of which was that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a lawyer, only applies to criminal cases, and immigration cases are classified as civil. So Ernesto—all of 16 years old, with little command of the English language beyond hello and thank you—would very likely have to argue his own case before an American judge. And if he failed to be sufficiently persuasive, Ernesto would be immediately deported back to Honduras.

For now, neither condition of his release was being met. The uncle who was supposed to take care of him had vanished shortly after his nephew’s arrival in Mendota, so Ernesto was living with four of his young cousins, who’d illegally sneaked into the US without being caught. They were living in a house nearby, surviving on sheer wit, hard labor, and little else.

Ernesto also wasn’t attending school. That’s why he’d come to the swap meet, where a group called the Fresno County Migrant Education program had set up a dusty stall between a taco truck and a work-boot stand, signing up youth for English classes.

“We can only help people who are working in the fields,” an ebullient woman named Rosa Hernandez told Ernesto when he approached her table. The Migrant Education Program is funded by the US Department of Education, which aims to provide additional support to children of migrant farmworkers—or, in Ernesto’s case, child farmworkers themselves. If Ernesto refrained from working in the fields, as his judge had mandated, he would be ineligible for the temporary health services, English classes, and dental care offered by the program. Such is the contradictory and confusing existence of the young illegal migrant in the US.

Ernesto shifted back and forth as Rosa took down his information on a clipboard, nervous that immigration court would learn he’d been working and not going to school—or that he was not, in fact, living with his uncle, who’d all but abandoned him (which violated the agreement he signed with the federal government).

After we left the stall and chatted by the refrescos stand, Ernesto told me that because he’d dropped out of school in Honduras when he was 12 to help support his family, he was actually excited about the prospect of learning English. Now was his chance to “get ahead,” he said. It might also help him argue his case successfully.

Ernesto’s route from Mapulaca, Honduras, to Mendota, California

Later, I visited Ernesto’s home in Mendota, where he lived with four young cousins. It was something like a Peter Pan’s fort for disenchanted migrant youth. None of the young men living with Ernesto had papers, and all of them crossed the border to work the California fields well before their 18th birthdays.

Their house, near downtown, was a small, sweet little ranch, plunked between a larger home on one side and an empty dust-filled lot on the other. Its wrought-iron fence, painted black and white, was slightly askew at the hinge, and on the concrete front porch stood five pairs of sturdy, dirt-caked work boots lined up neatly beside the door.

When I arrived, Ernesto led me to a tattered couch where we sat and he told me about the work he’d been doing. His shoulder muscles swelled, belying his age. Hanging on the living room wall behind him was a collection of frames, variously sized, displaying a depiction of the Virgin Mary and colorful family portraits, several of which appeared to be of the same older woman. I asked about her, assuming she was a relative.

“Oh, those aren’t ours,” Ernesto said. The photos belonged to the owner of the house—a Mexican woman who lived nearby and rented it to them. Those were her family members, he said, and the boys just kept them up for decoration. He seemed somewhat comforted by them, in any case, much more than he would have been by a blank wall.

Since his release from the Texas detention center, Ernesto and his cousins had been working the melon harvest, but now that the summer had passed and winter was approaching, they’d moved on to trimming almond trees. It paid minimum wage—not piecework, meaning that he earned $8 per hour and was not paid by the bushel (as is the case with crops like grapes and strawberries).

Ernesto worked 65 hours per week, he said, which earned him about $1,400 a month. He paid around $100 for rent, plus utilities. Even after paying an installment of his coyote debt, settling his phone and electric bills, buying food, and helping his family as much as he could—plus putting money away in savings for the winter months, when there would be less work—the take-home pay wasn’t so bad for a 16-year-old.

Local produce companies—like Stamoules and Westside Produce, whose fruits and vegetables reach nearly every major grocery chain in the US—rely on cheap migrant labor to reap enormous profits. In 2012, California farm barons collectively grossed $311.2 million on melons alone. The state’s almond industry, for which Ernesto was working (albeit illegally), grossed $4.35 billion that year. Approximately 75 percent of the manual labor required to put cans of almonds on supermarket shelves is performed by immigrants, according to Philip Martin, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at UC Davis. Logic dictates that this is the reason politicians from across the spectrum, from Nancy Pelosi to George W. Bush, have always tacitly supported lax migrant labor laws, even while occasionally spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric from the podium; California, along with many other western states, relies on this work force.

According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, at least 50 percent of US farm laborers are working in the US illegally; estimates in California are closer to 60 percent. Increasingly, undocumented children and teenagers are an accepted part of this labor pool. There are currently more than 3,500 unaccompanied minors working in Monterey County, according to Ernesto Vela of the Monterey County Office of Migrant Education. Statewide, that figure is likely well over 10,000.

In the US, individuals under 14 years of age are prohibited from legal employment, and individuals under 16 can work only on nights and weekends and school vacations, unless they have a special permit from their school district stating that they’ve completed the necessary education or that they have explicit permission to work instead of attending school. Yet Ernesto told me he’s never needed any age documents or work permits—none of the foremen for the labor-contracting companies that employed him for have even attempted to determine whether he is legally permitted to work. He didn’t buy a counterfeit Social Security card, either—which most kids purchase from an underground network in the neighboring town of Huron—because he was worried that obtaining one illegally might mess up his court case. Instead, he rented one “from someone who’s not working right now and doesn’t need it.”

I asked Ernesto whether his job was difficult. Not really, he said. In the fields in Honduras, where he began working at age 12, he made only 100 lempiras—or $5—a day. The labor there was just as hard, if not harder, and it wasn’t nearly as consistent. That kind of life wasn’t good for him, he said. He could never help his family on such insecure pay, either.

“So that’s why you left?” I asked.

“A person wants to make a better life for himself,” he said a little abstractly, universalizing his experience, making it seem not so unique, not so bad. “A person always wants something more.”

Just then, the door to Ernesto’s house opened. In walked three boys carrying groceries. Ernesto’s cousin, Amilcar, whom I had met briefly at the swap meet, looked like a gangly ninth grader, only with larger biceps and a more hardened gaze. He was 16 and came from the same region in Honduras as Ernesto—they’d gone to grade school together and dropped out around the same time to work in the fields. Amilcar had been in the US for just three months, crossing the border without hassle. He was carrying two 30-packs of Pepsi, while the others were lugging grocery bags full of the week’s other provisions: I counted at least five cartons of eggs and three tall stacks of tortillas, as well as several gallons of juice and freezer-wrapped bags of chicken. It took each of them three trips to get all the food through the door. When work started tomorrow, they said, there wouldn’t be time to shop again until next Sunday.

There were five of them living here, jammed into three small bedrooms. There were Ernesto and Amilcar, both 16; Juan Pablo, 22; Juan Pablo’s younger brother, José, 19; and Junior, short, muscly, and with his hair slicked back with thick gel, also 19. Juan Pablo and Junior had been living in the Mendota area for more than three years and had successfully paid off their coyote debts, making them the de facto patriarchs. There was a strong sense of family among the group; they told me that they all looked out for one another, the older boys offering advice and guidance to the younger ones as needed. “You know,” Ernesto said, “telling us what’s good, what’s bad, and what we should do.”

I asked whether it was hard to be so far away from their families.

“Of course I miss them,” Ernesto said.

Amilcar, the quiet tough guy of the pair, just shrugged—no big deal.

“But it makes you feel good to talk with them on the phone every now and again,” continued Ernesto. “That makes a person feel better.”

“They’re becoming good workers,” Junior said of the two boys. “They’re learning.”

Mendota is home to 11,000 people, nearly all of whom hail from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. Most work as laborers in the surrounding fields of Fresno and Monterey counties.

A few weeks later, I accompanied Amilcar and Ernesto to their first English class, in Mendota. They have a vague, inherited sense that knowing English might open up doors for their futures, and after I’d visited their house, Amilcar had called me and asked for help finding English classes in town. After reminding him that I’m a journalist and not his social worker, I agreed to help. I explained where the classes were: not far from his home and where, I knew, he went to the swap meet each week. “I don’t know where that is,” he told me on the phone. This is a child who, like Ernesto, had made it from rural Honduras through Mexico and across the US border all alone—but he was too intimidated to seek out the English classes ten blocks from his house.

When I drove to their house to pick them up, they’d just returned from work. Ernesto was in the shower, getting ready to go. But Amilcar, who had been more eager than anyone, seemed hesitant.

“I don’t think I can go tonight.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” he explained, “I have to cook my lunch for tomorrow.” In a pan, four knuckly chicken breasts were faintly sizzling. He poured in more oil out of a yellow gallon jug, poked at the pieces of meat, and turned up the heat. “I just got back from work,” he said. “I would have to shower.”

Ernesto emerged from the hallway smelling of cologne, having spiked his hair and put on a plaid, collared shirt. “I’m going to bring this notebook and pen,” he said, with a flourish. “What do you think?”

Amilcar was shifty as he cooked. He was still undecided about tonight’s class. And who wouldn’t think twice about attending a three-hour class after a 12-hour day spent trimming almond trees in the sun? His older cousins, seated at the kitchen table, urged him to go.

“It’s important for them to learn,” said Junior—his spiky hair gelled, as always—as he sipped a full cup of juice.

“OK,” Amilcar finally said. “I’ll go,” and he left the kitchen to take a quick shower.

While I waited, I asked Junior whether he was interested in the English class. “Oh, that’s good for the young ones,” he said, “but not for me. They need it—but, you know, I’m older.” He was all of 19. I asked how much schooling he’d had in Honduras. He’d completed most of the third grade, he said, and could read and write only a little in Spanish. He’d given up on his ability to learn anything other than fieldwork, but he was hopeful for his younger cousins.

When we arrived at the school, a group of elementary and middle school students—a mix of immigrants and California-born—was playing basketball in the gym. Amilcar and Ernesto adjusted their shirts nervously, clutched their notebooks, and walked toward the library, where the English class was being held—but the room was dark and locked. It had been canceled today. Amilcar and Ernesto were clearly disappointed, but also a little relieved.

As much as they knew education is important for their distant futures, life—without school—was pretty good right now. But did they want to do farmwork forever?

“Oh, no,” Ernesto said.

Amilcar shook his head.

It struck me that a factor of their youth was their expansive sense of possibility: In their minds, they wouldn’t be stuck in the fields forever, despite the fact that, statistically speaking, they probably would be. According to Human Rights Watch, a third of youth farmworkers in the US have dropped out of high school, which leaves them “with few options besides a lifetime of farmwork and the poverty that accompanies it.” And Ernesto dropped out of the sixth grade in Honduras—he didn’t even make it to high school.

“Working in a restaurant someday,” Ernesto said, from my backseat as we drove home, when I asked him what he dreamed of doing with his life. He looked out the window at the deadening Mendota night. “That would be really good.”

After a long day at work, Amilcar is greeted by one of the random portraits that decorate the boys’ living room.

For all its bounty, there’s something about the landscape of California’s Central Valley that feels diseased. Just a few miles from Ernesto’s house in Mendota, the air is a heavy brown-gray, polluted by the trucks that pass through on Highway 99, carrying produce to be packed and shipped and stocked onto shelves at Safeways and Hannafords across the country. The pollution clouds the rays of light that shine on the fields, smudging the horizon lines and the silhouettes of crops. The fields, too, in towns like Mendota and Huron and Raisin City, feel exquisitely toxic. As productive as they are, and as heavy with bloom and fruit, the plants are subtly listless in their rows and rows, lacking vibrancy. It’s a battered landscape, excavated and plucked and pumped for every last bit it can give.

Early one winter morning, six months after Ernesto and I had first met, I struck out into this landscape—now dried and brown—to try to find him hard at work. I wanted to see firsthand what the conditions were like, especially given that laboring in these fields is illegal but also arguably essential to the average American’s way of life. I was curious how he fared each day, and how the companies—their foremen, their coworkers—justified employing kids like Ernesto who were posing as adults eligible to work. But, indicative of the various contradictions of the issue at hand, the last thing I wanted was to get Ernesto fired, so he and I came up with a plan to prevent this: Once he arrived at the fields, he’d tell me where he was working (he was assigned a different location each day), and I’d show up and ask his crew general questions about the harvest. I would identify myself as a journalist, but not as an acquaintance of Ernesto’s.

Just in case that plan didn’t work out, I staged a meek stakeout of his house, where I watched, in the still-black, 32-degree chill of the morning, as a white-paneled van pulled up and honked. Ernesto ran out, lunch bag in tow, like a high schooler late for his bus. I trailed the vehicle but lost sight of it after a few U-turns. There were dozens of white vans roving the 6 AM Mendota streets.

Still, I made my way to Madera, the town where Ernesto had told me he’d be working the almond trees that day, and waited for the text that he had said he would send if we were separated. An hour later my phone buzzed: “12th Street where there are some oranges on the north side.”

I was way off base, soon realizing that Madera is both a county and a town. The town alone—consisting of some 16 square miles of farmland—is home to an Avenue 12, a Road 12, and a 12th Street. I quickly ruled out 12th Street, which runs for only a few short blocks in Madera’s small downtown. “Road or Avenue?” I texted. “Road” was his response. So I drove the ten-odd miles to the start of Madera County’s Road 12 and scoured it for any sign of oranges, my silver Volkswagen a pitiful chariot lurching over roads maimed with potholes, roads slick with frost, roads of dust that dipped into culverts and out again and then dead-ended altogether (despite my iPhone’s insistence that I was going the right way), roads rimmed with tree after tree after tree but no oranges, my car seeming punier and my quest more and more futile with each mile I bumped away.

Having covered every inch of Road 12 to no avail, I headed for Avenue 12, a wide, infinite east-west strip on which trucks roared past vast fields of brown: empty dirt furrows, the leafless silhouettes of fruitless trees. Unlike the summer, when vans and buses full of workers pack the fields and roadways, there was not a work crew in sight.

Just as I was about to give up and turn around, however, I spotted a stripe of orange along the road ahead—a patch of tangerine trees, or mandarinas, the landmark I’d been searching for.

As I inched along Avenue 12 with the bright thicket of mandarina trees on one side, hoping to come upon Ernesto’s almond grove on the other, I thought of a 17-year-old boy profiled in a Human Rights Watch report I’d been reading who, on his first day on the job in a Florida orange grove, was crushed to death by a truck. But devoid of humans and human folly, these groves were magnificent (save for the carpet of rotting fruit beneath the trees), the vivid colors a welcome break from the tawny winterscape I’d been traversing. Then, sure enough, across from the mandarinas, just as I’d been hoping and as Ernesto had said, I came to an almond grove where a crew of men spread throughout the rows and shook sticks into the highest branches. Though I couldn’t see their faces from the road, I knew Ernesto was among them.

So I pulled over and waited. A Migrant Education worker I had previously interviewed had explained to me the dynamics of ownership and cash flow in the groves to me. There’s typically a rancher who owns the land and leases it to a separate company—in this case, Cottonwood Creek Farms, according to the Madera County Department of Agriculture—that owns the trees and, therefore, the almond yield. A separate company, the labor contractor, hires the people. With all of these layers of ownership—land, plants, people—it’s easy to see how the agricultural industry can throw up its hands when it comes to labor-law violations, like hiring undocumented workers and teens, not to mention the moral violations of paying so little for a product from which so much profit is made. Nearly every work crew throughout the valley includes paperless workers, according to the Migrant Education staff, and of the 15 or so fields I visited over the course of the five months I reported this story, I met underage workers at nearly every single one. The multiple companies act as a compartmentalized buffer, defraying responsibility for these violations, legal and moral.

Whether intentionally or not, the agriculture companies profit from the vulnerability and fear of illegal workers. For undocumented laborers, especially children, reporting abuses like lack of water, lack of shade or bathrooms, abuse by their foremen, wage theft, or low pay—all of which are rampant in the Central Valley, according to California Rural Legal Assistance, which litigates many of these issues—could cost them their jobs.

Meanwhile, small legal outfits like the Migrant Education program or California Rural Legal Assistance lack the ability and resources to enforce existing labor laws, except to litigate on a case-by-case basis. But such cases ending up in court are rare and mere thorns in the sides of the mega-companies reaping large profits. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, between 2005 and 2008, 43 children died while working in US fields or packinghouses—a number that doesn’t include young workers masquerading as adults, a metric that is almost impossible to quantify.

While these young workers provide cheap labor and big profits to agribusiness, the skyrocketing number of unaccompanied minors puts a strain on the federal government: The Office of Refugee Resettlement is obliged to house unaccompanied minors who are apprehended, feed them, keep them safe, and ensure that they are transferred to the custody of responsible adults—all of which takes a lot of manpower and money. Before the spike in arrivals in 2012, the budget for unaccompanied alien children had been hovering around $150 million; in 2014, the federal government upped that to nearly $495 million. When you factor in those who are caught, the young, cheap labor force that agriculture companies profit from turns out not to be nearly as cheap as the fresh produce readily available in supermarkets across the country.

A bus in Huron waits to take workers to the nearby melon and almond fields.

Ernesto had told me his crew would break for lunch at noon, so at midday I left my car on the side of the road and tiptoed through the grove, ducking under rows of trees. I finally came upon a white van. Workers rested, stretched out in the dappled shade of the vehicle, with others leaning against nearby trees, silently sipping sodas. I introduced myself, asking where I could find the foreman. Among the crew of reclining men I spotted Junior first—the 19-year-old who had told me he was too old to learn anything but farmwork—his hair perfectly coiffed, his chin leaning on his knee. He was surprised to see me and quickly averted his gaze.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ernesto. Wearing a tattered baseball cap and a clean, white Henley, he reclined easily against an almond trunk, his work boots and the cuffs of his jeans covered in dust, his feet ringed by overturned mango skins stripped clean.

I exchanged pleasantries with the foreman, a friendly man in his 50s from El Salvador, of whom Ernesto had already told me, “He’s a really good boss. He never mistreats us.” As the foreman and I spoke, Ernesto fidgeted a bit, then stood up and walked farther into the grove and out of sight. I didn’t ask the foreman about Ernesto, or whether he knew that Ernesto was underage. But he must have been able to see that this member of his crew was just a kid, and he also must have known that it was illegal for Ernesto to be here, because it was the middle of the afternoon on a school day.

I didn’t ask, in part, because I didn’t want to get Ernesto in trouble, but also because it didn’t seem like the right place to get lost in the moral thickets of the question. After all, Ernesto wanted this work and needed it to survive. The foreman, himself a promoted farmworker, and his adult crew had their own things to worry about—their own lack of papers, their own need for a paycheck, their own debts, their own families here and back home. So they, just like the industry at large, turn their heads. This is the willful ignorance on which the whole system of planting, picking, and packing our food—and by extension, eating it—seems to rely.

Instead, I asked the foreman about the specifics of the work he and his crew were doing. During peak harvest, he explained, machines drove through these wide rows of trees and shook the almonds loose. But the machines didn’t get everything. Ernesto and his companions were the cleanup crew.

“Look,” he said, pointing at the ground. It was blanketed with almond pods, which resembled bulbous, mossed-over acorns. He grabbed one off the ground and cracked it open to reveal, much to my surprise, a perfect, golden-brown almond.

“But so many almonds are wasted!” I said.

“That’s how it is,” he shrugged. “In every harvest, you lose something.”

Amilcar in his backyard

After my time in the almond fields, I didn’t see Ernesto or Amilcar for a few months. I was busy at my day job—I teach immigrant children in Oakland, California, more and more of whom are unaccompanied minors. For their part, Ernesto and Amilcar continued to trim almond trees while Ernesto awaited his day in court.

Their work dwindled during the December holidays, the cold spells, the rain. Days off were boring, Amilcar said. Ernesto found them nerve-racking—he was worried about the possibility of being deported, and in the meantime no work meant no money. Other boys they knew moved on throughout California or out of state, as far as Washington or Texas or Arizona, in pursuit of the winter crop. But Ernesto and Amilcar were scared to move with the harvest because they lacked papers. Mendota was a place they knew, where they had work connections and felt safe enough from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On top of all this uncertainty, the State of California declared a drought. As a result, some farmers weren’t even prepping their fields for planting in the summer, because the state was raising water prices and climatologists predicted there wouldn’t be rain. So Ernesto and Amilcar waited, at the mercy of the weather.

In early January, Ernesto walked out to the front yard of his house to get the mail. Inside he found a letter from the immigration office in San Francisco, which had taken over his case:

    Please take notice that [your] case has been scheduled for a master hearing before the Immigration Court in July 2015… Failure to appear at your hearing… may result in… [your being] taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security.

It took him a moment to understand the letter, but when he did, he was shocked: His court date—the one that would determine his fate—had been pushed back to July 2015. The ICE court was overloaded. Instead of knowing if he would be deported in March or April 2014, as expected, he would have to wait another year and a half. He wouldn’t stand in court until more than two years after he crossed over the Rio Grande in that leaky boat.

In a way, it was a fitting turn to his story. Like so many lost kids before him, Ernesto would remain in limbo, at the mercy of the vicissitudes of the courts, the gangsters, the markets, the crops, the California rain and sun. He would likely spend the rest of his teenage years laboring under that uncertainty.

When I met Ernesto one last time, at his home in Mendota, he told me—with an optimism that was both impressive and a little inscrutable—that he saw waiting for court as a good thing. He would be in the US, working, and not in Honduras, and for now that was good enough for him. “It’ll find me time to get a lawyer,” he said. His uncle, who was now “somewhere up north,” promised to help him with this—although when I pressed him it was unclear how, and when, and with what money.

Even with a decent lawyer, Ernesto’s odds of actually winning an asylum claim, and thus a visa, would be something like winning the lottery. Being the victim of gang violence is not a sure bet, and he didn’t have concrete evidence that he was specifically targeted. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, very few asylum cases are awarded based on claims of gang persecution—because it’s very difficult to argue, in a case like Ernesto’s, that the gang activity he experienced was personal, or anything more than generalized violence in a certain region. In other words, Ernesto might not have had it bad enough to win.

I asked him what he will say to the judge when he finally gets his day in court.

“Well, my lawyer will help me with that,” he said. “When I find one.”

And if he doesn’t find one?

“I guess I’ll ask the judge if I can stay.”

I asked him how he felt about the very real possibility of deportation, of being sent back to all his former problems.

“If they send me home, I won’t go back to my town. It’s too dangerous there.” He said the gang members who first threatened him would recognize him. “So I guess I’d just go somewhere else.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Well… One never knows.”


 

1 Because of sensitive legal situations, the names of some people in this story have been changed at their request.

2 All dates refer to federal fiscal years, which run from October 1 to September 30.

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