For Central American migrants, the promise of work in the fields of California has dried up.

Clara Orozco was leaning against the doorway of her apartment in a complex of two-story buildings that span several blocks in the Cantaloupe Capital of the World. Her arms were crossed over her chest and her curly auburn hair was tied tightly. It was a sunny day in November, during what is usually harvest season, and she wanted to know if I worked for the government.

Since Clara—which isn’t her real name—crossed the border last June and ended up in California, immigration officers had been stopping by every other week to check up on the 40-year-old would-be farmworker. I assured her I was just a writer. Then she explained: “I can’t leave the house because of this,” lifting her ankle to show me a bulge the size of a bar of soap: a tracking bracelet, a term of her release from detention in Arizona. As a result, she said, “I don’t go to the store, don’t go to church, and I can’t work.”

The original plan had been for Clara’s husband to come to California to work the melon and grape and almond harvests in the Central Valley—based from the city of Mendota. When he’d earned enough for the couple to retire, he’d move back to his wife and kids in Lempira, Honduras. But then Clara got involved with local politics in Central America. She started supporting El Partido Libre, an opposition party, and the threats began. Strangers would call and tell her that if she didn’t stop organizing political gatherings, she and her daughter would be kidnapped and killed. Callers told Clara they’d find her and her daughter—whom I’ll call Melanie—wherever they went in Honduras.

Across the Golden State, fields lay dry and fallow, crops unplanted, no work crews in sight. Fear hasn't been the only thing keeping Clara inside.

We stood outside of Clara’s apartment while 13-year-old Melanie, who had just returned from school, brushed her hair until it gleamed. Occasionally a van pulled through the lot and a mud-caked worker or two trickled out: the lucky ones who’d found a job that day.

In Honduras, Clara had felt she had no option but to go north, so she hired a coyote, and she and Melanie made their way through Guatemala into Mexico and across the Rio Grande to Texas—where they were caught by Border Patrol. The two were locked up for seven days. At times Clara felt she might not survive; more than 30 mothers and children shared a cell so small that the adults slept sitting up. (Patterns of unauthorized migration to the United States have shifted from economic migrants—like Clara’s husband—toward socio-political migrants, mostly young families and teens seeking safety. The number of migrants in family-unit detention facilities nearly quadrupled between 2013 and 2014, capturing the media’s attention last summer.)

The center where Clara and Melanie were held was so crowded that, like many other migrants, Clara was strapped with an ankle bracelet, released to her husband in California, and told to show up at a hearing some months down the road. Because of California’s storied reputation of plenty, with a vast need for field workers, Clara was one of many new immigrants who had relatives in the Central Valley.

At first, the temporary release felt like freedom. The rules were that immigration agents would visit Clara every other week, and that she had to report to the local ICE office each month. So once every four weeks or so, Clara’s husband pays $50 for a driver to take her to Fresno, 35 miles away along two-lane farm roads. At each biweekly home visit, immigration agents snap her photo as proof she hasn’t made a run for it. After about four months, she said, “I just stand there wanting to scream at them to take this thing off of me.”

Migrants, of course, need to make a living, and pay off their smuggling debts, which these days ring up at more than $7,000 a person. The agricultural industry has long offered one of our country’s greatest loopholes for the undocumented, but being under the scrutiny of immigration agents complicates the once easy act of buying a Social Security number and heading to the fields. Many others in Clara’s situation—including several of her neighbors—were taking the risk and working a harvest now and again. But even if there was work, Clara said, she’d be terrified to leave the house. “What if they suddenly changed my day and I wasn’t here? What if they raided the field and found me with my bracelet? I’d go back to jail.”

Last year there were 17,000 fewer jobs for migrant laborers in the Central Valley than the year before. (Photo: Matt Black)

Last year there were 17,000 fewer jobs for migrant laborers in the Central Valley than the year before. (Photo: Matt Black)

In early February, three months after our first visit, I went to see Clara again. The hills outside of Mendota were deceptively green—there’d been a recent rain, just enough for the grasses to sprout. I parked across from her apartment as the stars were beginning to show. Around the corner a family was holding a child’s birthday party in an open garage. Parents were cheering as the kids took turns swinging at a piñata.

Clara and I stood outside; she preferred not to talk among her roommates, whom she didn’t know that well. A good thing had happened, she told me: Immigration agents had removed her ankle bracelet (although she says they didn’t tell her why). But they continued to visit her every other week. For the most part, she was still spending her days in the apartment, cooking, cleaning, waiting for Melanie to come home from school. “She got honor roll,” Clara told me with pride.

A bad thing had been happening, too. Across the Golden State, fields lay dry and fallow, crops unplanted. Fear hasn’t been the only thing keeping Clara inside. Of all the state’s agricultural regions, California’s Central Valley has taken the brunt of the drought that has gripped the state for more than three years. A University of California-Davis study estimates that the state lost $800 million in crop revenue last year. And more growers have been relying on groundwater, a rapidly diminishing and increasingly pricey resource. Farmers have left 428,000 acres, or five percent, of the state’s irrigated cropland unplanted, and between January and May 2014, there were 17,100 fewer seasonal jobs than the year before. “My husband has been working the fields here for 20 years,” Clara said. “He worked a few days this week in the almond groves, but other than that, there’s been very little work.”

Clara’s court date was set for this spring, and she’d hired a lawyer—for several thousand dollars—to help her apply for political asylum. The evening had grown cold as we spoke, and I fiddled with my scarf. “You aren’t wearing a camera, are you?” she asked suddenly. I unraveled the scarf as proof. Shaking her head and waving for me to put my scarf back on, she said, “I know, I’m so sorry.” She looked down at the ground. Through the upstairs window, her roommate’s baby cried. Across the lot, a young man tinkered beneath the hood of his truck, pumping bachata music from a radio as an older gentleman in a boisterous cowboy hat lumbered beneath a street lamp.

I asked Clara what she will do if she gets papers. “If you get papers, you can do anything,” she said dreamily. “I could move to another state, or work in a restaurant.” She wouldn’t be stuck in the dry pit of California, waiting for rain.

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This story was produced in collaboration with the non-profit Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Lead photo: Last year, migrant workers and farmers protested water cutbacks at the California Aqueduct in Mendota. (Photo: Matt Black)

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