The morning dew hasn't yet burned off the fields when Matsuda's nursery comes to life.
Mexican ballads pour out of new foreman Carlos Appollinar's pickup while he and an army of workers transplant hundreds of flowers, trees and shrubs into black plastic pots. They load bright-green hydrangeas, pink, purple and red rhododendrons and Greek cypresses that grow to 40 feet onto Matsuda's fleet of trucks, bound for retailers and landscapers in Los Angeles, Concord and San Jose.
Matsuda's, founded 60 years ago by the descendant of Japanese immigrants, has grown into a multimillion-dollar business covering 130 acres on Florin Road in Sacramento. But in recent months, the company has found itself in the cross hairs of the Department of Homeland Security, which under the Obama administration is cracking down on a growing number of businesses for hiring illegal workers.
Through Aug. 8, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had collected more than $8.5 million in fines from 308 businesses nationwide and launched 2,842 investigations of businesses — twice the number of cases initiated in 2009.
An ICE investigation last spring uncovered 61 undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America at Matsuda's – 60 percent of its full-time staff, including the company's longtime foreman.
In the middle of Easter rush – the busiest season of the year – managers Ryan Wallace, Jim Snyder and Tom Wing held painful exit interviews with workers who were found to be undocumented.
"They were crying, we were crying," Snyder said.
Now, six months after the ICE investigation, Matsuda's has rebounded, hiring new workers.
"We will grow and ship 1.2 million plants this year," said general manager Wallace, a University of California, Davis, environmental horticulture and agricultural economics graduate.
But the whole episode has left Wallace and his managers questioning U.S. immigration policy and whether the crackdown is causing more economic problems than it's solving.
"It chastised us, put a multimillion-dollar business in jeopardy, and put them on the street," said Snyder, the company's production manager.
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