From Southern California, public radio for your eyes.

The Kingdom of Dust

The prospects of comprehensive immigration reform look increasingly dim in Washington as U.S. Senate legislation encounters fierce resistance in the House

The debate over immigration reform looms large in California's Central Valley, where farming is king. No industry relies more on immigrant labor (and wants to see immigration reform) more than agriculture.

Photographer Matt Black, a native of the Central Valley, has spent the past 15 years documenting the living and working conditions of farmworkers that make California the pantry of the United States.

California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the biggest farms are located on the flat expanses of the Central Valley.

"Big farming permeates all aspects of life here," Black said. "It's one enormous factory town."

Black grew up on the outskirts of Vasalia, Calif., and started his photojournalism career in high school when he worked for a local paper.

From the beginning, he was drawn to telling the personal stories of workers who spent hours in the fields every year and lived in difficult conditions.

"People don't know how different and exceptional the Central Valley is from the rest of California. It's defined by what it produces," Black said. "And every summer we have another crop of farm workers dying in the field."

According to the Sacramento Bee, farmworkers are still vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and three recent deaths on farms in the Central Valley may be related to a triple-digit heatwave this summer.

In 2006, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration passed new regulations that require all outdoor places of employment to provide training on heat-related illnesses, water and shade. 

However, labor advocates say the rules aren't enough and Black agrees.

"There's a perception that a lot of these problems were fixed a long time ago, but based on my experience, they've gotten worse," Black said.

Black is also concerned with the effects of migration out of small communities in Mexico into the U.S.

Since 2000, Black has gone to Mexico to find the communities that the farmworkers have left behind and created the series "People of the Clouds," which was featured on NPR's Picture Show.

"Migration is destroying these communities," Black said. "What we've witnessed in the past 40 years in Mexico is truly a historic movement of people. This will be something that reshapes America."

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