San Francisco Chronicle

Farm labor grows scarce in face of raids on immigrants

- By Carolyn Lochhead

WASHINGTON — Growers and farmworker unions said Tuesday that a federal immigratio­n crackdown in rural towns is scaring away workers and forcing cutbacks in production of hand-harvested produce.

The comments came as part of a push for a long-shot bill by California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris to revive Feinstein’s 2013 “blue-card” visa proposal that would provide legal status and a path to citizenshi­p for farmworker­s.

“Wherever I go in California — I was just up in the wine industry — when I talk to dairy farmers, when I talk to small farmers in the Bay Area, even some in the Central Valley, they tell me they can’t find workers,” Feinstein said on a conference call with reporters. “That workers are scared, that

they’re afraid they’re going to be picked up and deported, that they have disappeare­d.”

Feinstein said growers tell her they are looking to set up operations in Mexico, but “that’s not the answer. The people who feed us should have an opportunit­y to work here legally.”

Shah Kazemi, owner of Watsonvill­e’s Monterey Mushrooms, which has operations in several other states, said a federal immigratio­n raid on a neighborin­g grower in Pennsylvan­ia had scared away his workers. Kazemi said that the shortages have forced him to cut production 12 percent in California and 15 percent in Illinois, and that efforts to mechanize harvests of the tender plant have proved unsuccessf­ul so far.

Feinstein’s office, using a UC Davis estimate, said 70 percent of California’s 560,000 farmworker­s are in the country without authorizat­ion. Her bill, the Agricultur­al Worker Program Act, would grant “blue card” legal status to farmworker­s who have worked in agricultur­e for at least 100 days in both 2015 and 2016. If they continue working on farms for at least 150 days a year over the following three years, or 100 days a year for the following five years, they would be eligible for permanent residency.

The bill is similar to one that Feinstein attached to a 2013 immigratio­n overhaul that passed the Senate but died in the House. Its chances of passage are bleak, given stout opposition to expanded immigratio­n in the GOPcontrol­led Senate, House and White House.

The 2013 Feinstein bill was part of a compromise Feinstein brokered between the United Farm Workers union and California growers. Arturo Rodriguez, president of the union, said he is confident growers will support the new version.

Kazemi said he pays farmworker­s an average of $16 an hour plus benefits. An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found the average farmworker in the state earns about $30,000 a year for full-time work, about half the state average.

UC Davis farm economist Daniel Sumner said farmworker wages have been rising recently, “and we project in California they will continue to rise.” Sumner said farm wages in some regions of the state are now in the $15-an-hour range, although wages in the Central Valley tend to be lower than on the coast.

Growers said they have not seen systematic federal raids on farms despite the Trump administra­tion’s stepped-up enforcemen­t. Rodriguez said that in California, unions have an agreement with growers to direct federal agents to the farm’s administra­tive office before allowing them in the fields.

Rodriguez said the alarm stems from the presence of federal agents in rural towns. Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t “is very prevalent within the communitie­s where farmworker­s live” throughout the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys, Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t take much to spread alarm.”

Growers have complained of worker shortages for many years. In addition to raising wages and pleading with Washington to ease legal entry for laborers, growers have expanded operations to Mexico and mechanized harvests of some crops such as nuts. Some produce remains too delicate for machines, however. Rodriquez said growers are experiment­ing with laborsavin­g methods such as growing strawberri­es on tables so that workers don’t have to stoop to harvest them.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., is introducin­g a companion bill in the House. He said Americans face a choice of admitting foreign workers to grow food domestical­ly, or importing food from abroad.

“It’s pretty simple,” Gutiérrez said. “Foreign hands in foreign countries, or foreign hands in our own.”

 ?? Thomas Webb / Special to The Chronicle ?? Federal raids targeting immigrants are keeping workers like these in Watsonvill­e out of the fields.
Thomas Webb / Special to The Chronicle Federal raids targeting immigrants are keeping workers like these in Watsonvill­e out of the fields.

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