Farm­ers fear im­pact of il­le­gal im­mi­grant crack­down by feds

Mea­sure to take ef­fect in midSeptem­ber

The Covington News - - AGRICULTURE & OUTDOORS - By Jul­liana Bar­bassa

SAN FRAN­CISCO — With fruit rot­ting in fields, un­milked cows suf­fer­ing in barns and shut­tered farm­houses, grow­ers are paint­ing a bleak pic­ture of their in­dus­try un­der new fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies.

Fol­low­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounce­ment that em­ploy­ers who know­ingly keep un­doc­u­mented work­ers will be held li­able un­der a new en­force­ment push, many grow­ers said their busi­nesses would be hard­est hit.

Par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble would be fruit op­er­a­tions that are now hir­ing thou­sands of sea­sonal work­ers in prepa­ra­tion for the peak har­vest months of July through Septem­ber. The mea­sure is to take ef­fect in mid-Septem­ber.

Andy Casado Jr. is a Cal­i­for­nia farm la­bor con­trac­tor with nearly 800 work­ers who also grows and packs fruit him­self.

“I’m guess­ing 80, 90 per­cent of the ag work force is il­le­gal,” he said. “Im­ple­ment­ing this rule will be cat­a­strophic.”

While it’s long been il­le­gal to hire any­one not au­tho­rized to work in the United States, farm­ers take their chances that doc­u­ments pre­sented by the 1.6 mil­lion farm­work­ers around the coun­try are valid, said Howard Rosenberg, a farm la­bor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia.

Think tanks that op­pose il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion praised the move, hop­ing it will turn off the job mag­net has at­tracted new im­mi­grants.

To farm work­ers, though, it’s just an­other ef­fort by the gov­ern­ment to look good at the ex­pense of the peo­ple who hold down the hard­est and low­est paid jobs in the coun­try.

“There’s al­ways more pres­sure on the im­mi­grant commu- nity,” said farm worker Ger­ardo Reyes of Immokalee, Fla. “We’re mak­ing sure food gets to ev­ery­one’s ta­bles.”

Farm­ers and farm­work­ers agreed rais­ing the stakes could hurt ev­ery­one.

“We’re go­ing to face fir­ing em­ploy­ees whether the doc­u­ments are wrong or right with no one to fill those po­si­tions,” said J. Allen Carnes, pres­i­dent of Win­ter Gar­den Pro­duce in Uvalde, Texas.

Carnes said he’s al­ready suf­fered worker short­ages dur­ing the last few years be­cause of tight­ened border se­cu­rity.

Steve Pringle, leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor for the Texas Farm Bureau, said the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s move forces em­ploy­ers into an im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion.

“Ei­ther you obey the law and you watch your crop rot in the fields or you at­tempt to try to get the crop out and run the risk of be­ing hit by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” he said.

Be­cause tighter en­force­ment could hurt agri­cul­ture, Com­merce Sec­re­tary Car­los Gu­tier­rez has said the La­bor De­part­ment will work to stream­line the ex­ist­ing tem­po­rary worker pro­gram, which al­lows farm­ers to ap­ply for for­eign work­ers.

But farm­ers were more skep­ti­cal of what could be achieved un­der a pro­gram they con­sider bu­reau­cratic and ex­pen­sive.

Casado, the Cal­i­for­nia con­trac­tor, re­cently took a sem­i­nar on the pro­gram. “I learned a lot, but one of the things I learned is that I can’t do it my­self,” he said.

About 70 grow­ers gath­ered this week in Fresno, deep in Cal­i­for­nia’s agri­cul­tural Cen­tral Val­ley, to dis­cuss op­tions, share dooms­day sce­nar­ios, and shake their heads in frus­tra­tion.

The state picks, packs and ships about half of the veg­eta­bles, nuts and fruits grown in the U.S. ev­ery year. Grow­ers rely on 225,000 year-round em­ploy­ees, and twice that many in sum­mer.

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