Searching for farm labor in California

The agricultural industry is heavily dependent on immigrant labor, and it is widely accepted that many – perhaps most – of their immigrant workers are here illegally (I have seen estimates of up to 70%). Western Growers Association has been way out in front of the political effort to ensure an ample supply of labor during the critical few weeks of harvest time. It describes itself this way: “Western Growers’ members grow, pack and ship nearly one half of the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts.” The association has membership in California and Arizona. On 11/20 the CEO wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the federal no-match program, which a court blocked in October, and advocating AgJobs, which was inserted in the immigration reform bill expressly to address the west coast farm industry.
Here is the text of Tom Nassif’s column:
In the midst of the combustive debate over immigration reform, we in agriculture have been forthright about the elephant in America’s living room: Much of our workforce is in the country illegally — as much as 70%.
Faced with the option of economic ruin, as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of our livelihood rots in the fields, or the embrace of a fatally flawed immigration system, our industry and farm families opt to survive. Who wouldn’t? For those who have a 10-20 day harvest window to make or break their entire business year, government promises to fix the system don’t work. We can’t wait for rules to change. We need reform and we need it now.


Western Growers — representing half of all the fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. — has repeatedly called for a fix. We want and expect government to enforce immigration laws; we want a secure border, fraud-proof IDs and valid Social Security cards. Despite a broken and unworkable system, however, Congress has chosen not to act. Meanwhile, the Bush administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — under intense political pressure — did begin to move.
Last month, a federal judge ordered an indefinite delay to the DHS’s “no-match” program that would have forced employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers did not match their names. The judge said it would cause “irreparable harm to innocent workers and employers.” This preliminary injunction has prevented the DHS from proceeding with the shortsighted no-match program.
The DHS openly concedes our industry’s reliance on falsely documented workers. But like a physician who diagnoses an open wound but uses salt in place of sutures, DHS avoided the cure in favor of additional pain.
The pain was in the form of the no-match rules. The DHS guidelines would have established purported “safe harbor” procedures for employers who received a Social Security Administration (SSA) no-match letter. The letter notifies an employer that he has submitted employee W-2s with names and Social Security numbers that do not match. Employers would have had to fire employees who could not produce new documentation within 90 days of receiving the letter, or face the risk that DHS may find that the employer had knowledge that the employee was unauthorized.
The regulations would have put farmers in an untenable situation: Either terminate the majority of their existing workforce and let the crops die in the fields, or disregard the rules and risk having to pay huge fines and penalties for “knowingly” employing undocumented workers. This attempt by DHS to expose illegal immigrants would have done nothing to address the underlying issues or correct the problem.
Fortunately, the courts have stepped in and the Bush administration now has an opportunity to fix our broken system. The plaintiffs in the case argued that DHS’s plans would place a costly burden on employers and result in the needless firing of employees. That, in turn, would open employers up to lawsuits and charges of discrimination. Civil liberties organizations pointed out the no-match rules would likely lead to the violation of the rights of many legal workers who might have made a mistake they couldn’t correct before deadline.
These valid concerns must be addressed. Agriculture yearns for a legal, stable, economical workforce; we have been saying so for years. And though we are relieved by the court’s decision, it doesn’t change the fact that this industry still needs a workable solution. Our current guest-worker program, known as H2-A, is costly and cumbersome, and sets labor standards that are not competitive in the global marketplace.
At the Bush administration’s request, we have suggested changes to the H-2A program, such as expediting the application process and faxing guest-worker approval notices, instead of relying on “snail mail” while highly perishable crops await timely harvesters. These fixes are not difficult and can, in most cases, be administratively applied — what is the delay?
If the DHS’s no-match program had gone forward, America’s domestic food supply would have been irreparably damaged. Small farm owners would have gone out of business and large operators could have taken their operations abroad — taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.
Our industry, as well as farm-worker advocates — Democrats and Republicans alike — support legislation known as AgJOBS. This bill, which was a part of the Senate’s “grand bargain,” includes a temporary guest-worker program that logically matches willing farmers with willing foreign laborers.
AgJOBS provides the perfect opportunity for Congress to make progress on this critically important issue. Americans don’t raise their children to work in the fields, and so we are reliant on a foreign workforce. We desperately want that workforce to be legal, and AgJOBS affords us that opportunity.
The Bush administration does support comprehensive immigration reform, and reportedly set in place the DHS’s draconian no-match rules to force the issue. Still, it was playing a risky game of chance with U.S. agriculture to the detriment of our industry, our economy and American consumers.
We must stop playing games with our domestic food supply. Agriculture needs workers, Americans won’t do the work and Congress lacks the courage to pass a comprehensive immigration package. It is time for Congress to find its courage, rise above the anger of the activists, and come together to solve this problem.
Mr. Nassif is president & CEO of Western Growers.

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