WASHINGTON — The agriculture industry fears a disaster on the horizon if the bit of new immigration policy that Congress seems to agree on becomes law.
A plan to require all American businesses to check their employees through E-Verify, a program that confirms that each is legally entitled to work in the U.S., could wreak havoc on an industry where 80 percent of the field workers are illegal immigrants.
“We are headed toward a train wreck,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat whose district includes agriculture-rich areas.
Lofgren said that farmers want to hire legal workers and U.S. citizens but that it’s nearly impossible given the relatively low wages and back-breaking work.
Wages can range from minimum wage to more than $20 an hour. But workers are often paid by the piece; the faster they work, they more they make. A steady income lasts only as long as the planting and harvesting seasons.
“Few citizens express interest, in large part because this is hard, tough work,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said last week. “Our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers to do the right thing.”
Last year the United Farm Workers launched a Take Our Jobs campaign to entice Americans into the fields. But President Arturo Rodriguez said that of about 86,000 inquiries, only 11 workers took jobs.
“That really was thought up by farmworkers trying to figure out what is it we needed to do to show that we are not trying to take away anyone’s job,” Rodriguez said.
Manuel Cunha, president of Nisei Farmers League, a group representing growers in Central California, said farmers don’t have the wherewithal to verify workers’ status.
“If we were to use E-Verify now, we’d shut down — either that or farmers would go to prison,” said Cunha, a Fresno-based citrus farmer.
Shawn Coburn, a politically active farmer who grows thousands of acres of almonds in west Fresno County, said he favors tighter borders, a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for those already in the U.S., or at the very least their children. But, like Cunha, he believes that a mandatory E-Verify plan would be nothing but trouble for the industry.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen, but if it does it would throw the California economy for a loop,” Coburn said.
Without a broad policy overhaul in the works, industry officials have focused on improving the H-2A temporary agricultural workers visa program, which is aimed at allowing seasonal workers to work on U.S. farms.
The program, is costly, time-consuming and inefficient, however, according to Cathleen Enright, vice president of federal government affairs for the Western Growers Association.
Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association said the H-2A program “is too expensive, it’s too litigious, it’s too bureaucratic.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said farmers in his area want to do the right thing and hire legal workers but are frustrated with the stifling bureaucracy that comes with the visa program.
“It’s a labyrinthine visa process, with the slow walking of applications,” Gowdy said.
“You could not by accident come up with a better plan to ruin the small family farm.”
Farmers, he said, “are just at their wits’ end.”
Lawmakers agree that the visa program is problematic, but there’s a wide divide on how to make it workable.