MADERA — After Paulino Mejia crossed the border illegally into the United States in 1980, he picked grapes, peaches and other crops in California's agricultural heartland, lived in crowded rental housing, hid from immigration agents and sent paychecks to family in his native Mexico.
His life changed in 1986, when Congress agreed to allow immigrants who were in the country illegally to get legal status, with a special provision that focused on farmworkers.
Mejia then stopped living in fear. He left agriculture to join a construction company that hired only legal workers, sent his two daughters to college and bought a house in Madera instead of wiring money to Mexico.
"Immigration reform changed my life. It gave my family freedom," he said. "It allowed us to reach the American dream."
With Congress considering a new immigration proposal that includes a speedier process to legal status for farmworkers, experts say the best indicator of how such an overhaul would play out is to look at the fate of the generation of farmworkers legalized more than two decades ago.
In Central California, the 1986 law had a profound effect on people such as Mejia.
And like him, many other farmworkers legalized after 1986 have left the fields, moving to jobs in packing houses, warehouses and factories, attending college and working as professionals. And many who remained in agriculture became supervisors, crew leaders or labor contractors.
As their wages soared, they bought cars, houses and trailer homes.
Workers, advocates and experts say immigration reform again could lift many farmworkers out of poverty. But this time, they say, legalization's impact would be bigger. In 1986, many farmworkers were single men; today most have families.
Guest worker program
Unlike in 1986, growers and worker advocates say the current reform proposal would ensure that a poor, illegal class of farmworkers isn't created again by including a viable guest worker program.
"Nobody knows the future, but if the past is any guide, the farmworkers who get legalized, many of them will leave agriculture pretty quickly," said Philip Martin, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis.
More than 1 million farmworkers applied for legalization under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
After the corresponding drop in the number of farmworkers in the country illegally, federal data show that farmers failed to retain their legalized workers and again turned to hiring employees from the people entering the United States illegally.
Today, experts say, at least two-thirds of the nation's farmworkers are in the country illegally and those legalized thanks to the 1986 changes make up just 12 percent to 15 percent of the agricultural work force.
Experts say newly legalized farmworkers sought nonseasonal, year-round employment with a steady income and benefits such as health insurance or vacations.
"If you're a seventh-grade educated worker, after legalization you're still a seventh-grade educated worker, but you have more confidence that you will get another job and more opportunities are open to you," Martin said.
Even those who stayed in the fields benefited because they were able to claim unemployment insurance and other benefits when work dried up for the season.
Other farmworkers went to college. Fausto Sanchez of Arvin, near Bakersfield, left agriculture for a job as a certified interpreter of Mixteco, an indigenous Mexican language spoken by many farmworkers. He then got his high school diploma in adult school and an associate degree in human services.
He works for a nonprofit, educating farmworkers about pesticides, heat rules and worker rights. He and his wife own a house and two cars, and he plans to return to college to become a social worker.
"If I didn't get legalized, all this would not have been possible for me," Sanchez said.
California growers and labor contractors acknowledge that many farmworkers would leave the fields if granted legal status.
"There's no question that once farmworkers get a green card, many will apply for other jobs and leave agriculture," said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, an industry group that represents California and Arizona growers. "We support the pathway to citizenship at our own peril, knowing we will lose the people who are most skilled and most productive employees within a short time."
But the flight from agriculture might not happen as fast, Nassif said, because the current version of immigration reform requires farmworkers to remain in agriculture for at least five years to qualify for the speedier legalization process.
The current reform proposal, Nassif said, includes a viable guest worker program to provide a future flow of workers.