By SCOTT JAMES •
A worker trimmed excess branches and leaves from vines.
Nearly every drop of Napa County’s world-class wine is produced by migrant labor.
This time of year, that means the workers are suckering vines — pulling off, by hand, tiny sprouts that might hinder the growth of healthy grapes.
Just as painstakingly, civic and business leaders in the county have been working on another key element of the harvest: cultivating their own immigration policy.
Federal laws prevent foreigners from residing or working in the United States without permission, and a sweeping national crackdown has been under way in recent years. A record one million illegal immigrants have been deported since President Obama took office. Some states are more stringent. An Arizona law against hiring undocumented laborers was upheld Thursday by the United States Supreme Court.
But Napa is taking a different approach, providing affordable basic necessities for migrant workers — food, shelter and support — regardless of whether they are here legally or not.
The effort was born of compassion and practicality. Without migrant labor, most of it from Mexico, the wine producers in Napa would be hard pressed to fill a carafe, much less the valley’s nine million annual cases.
Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 illegal migrants reside (often seasonally) in Napa, although the number is impossible to confirm. Ten years ago, they could be found living in the woods in makeshift camps, sleeping on fetid mattresses and drinking from dirty streams. Today they receive subsidized housing, or can reside in three tidy dormitory complexes near St. Helena and Yountville where up to 180 workers pay $12 a day for room and board.
Luis V. Gutierrez, a Democratic congressman from Illinois and an advocate for immigration reform who visited St. Helena last month, called Napa’s approach “unique.”
“They’re being proactive in providing housing, providing counseling to the workers there,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “The immigrant community had a very strong fellowship with those around them.”
There is no federal financing for thumbing one’s nose at Washington policy, so Napa pays for its own efforts.
Vineyard owners pay an assessment of $10 per acre to help house and feed migrant fieldworkers, a program that costs more than $1 million a year. Financing and donations, including food, also come from county and municipal governments, churches, businesses, charities and concerned citizens — all contributing to a larger safety net that includes health care and job placement.
None of those involved appeared worried about running afoul of laws. Instead, they see a moral obligation.
Moises Sanchez, 58, has come from Jalisco, Mexico, for the past 37 years to work in Napa’s vineyards, and he now has legal status. He leaves behind his wife and three children for up to 10 months at a time.
“It’s very hard,” Mr. Sanchez said.
But thanks to his labors, his family in Mexico has a house with a mango tree, 20 cows, 4 goats and 30 chickens, he said with a smile.
While in Napa, he lives frugally at River Ranch, one of the subsidized dormitories, under strict, almost monastic conditions: work six days a week, men only, two per room, no alcohol. Mr. Sanchez said he loved it, especially compared to the past when he paid more to live with six others in just one room.
Angel Calderon, manager of River Ranch, said migrant farm workers in other parts of California were routinely exploited — paid little and charged exorbitant living expenses.
“Some guys say, ‘I work 10 hours and at the end of the day I only have $10 in my pocket,’ ” Mr. Calderon said.
In Napa, workers are paid about $10 an hour; taxes are frequently withheld from their wages, including Social Security, even though many of them will never be able to collect the benefits.
Thirty-five years ago, only one-third of the county’s economy was tied to wine, but today it is the predominant industry, said Terence Mulligan, president of the Napa Valley Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization that is currently conducting a study of migrant workers.
“People in Napa really understand how the economy works,” Mr. Mulligan said.
Many migrant workers who were first lured by the vineyards have stayed, and that has changed the makeup of Napa, he said. Legal or not, Hispanics represented 13 percent of the county’s population 20 years ago, but are at least 33 percent today, and will most likely be the majority by 2025, Mr. Mulligan said.
Not everyone likes this shift, and some have denounced Napa’s efforts to help migrant workers.
“A vocal minority has opposed any type of change,” Mr. Mulligan said. Indeed, when local newspapers report on migrant workers, they are often flooded online with virulent anti-immigrant comments.
Yet without migrant farm workers, it’s not clear that any Cabernet Sauvignon would ever make it to the glass.
Mr. Calderon said that in his 27 years of working in Napa he only once encountered a nonmigrant laboring in the vineyards: a white college student who did it for a class project. He lasted two months.
“He said he’d never complain about his life again,” Mr. Calderon said.
Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco. firstname.lastname@example.org