BURLINGTON, Wash. — If you buy strawberry Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Steve Sakuma says, there's an 80 percent chance that you're going to get his berries, grown on some of the richest black soil in America, in northern Washington state, about 50 miles from the Canadian border.
And he says there's a very good chance that you'd get berries handpicked by illegal immigrants, too.
Wearing designer blue jeans and sunglasses, Sakuma, who's 65, surveyed his 250-acre strawberry plot outside Burlington earlier this month, pointing to 231 employees, most of them from Mexico, who were crouched down handpicking the fruit under a hot morning sun. He estimated that 80 percent of them were in the country illegally, even though they'd provided him with the necessary documents.
Like throngs of other farmers nationwide who rely on illegal labor to harvest their crops, Sakuma fears that Congress doesn't understand the complexities of his operations. He said he'd promptly go out of business if lawmakers forced employers to electronically verify the immigration status of their employees. And he urged members of Congress to consider the ramifications carefully first.
"These illegal immigrants, or whatever you want to call them, have been around for a long time," Sakuma said. "And guess what? They're not bad. They're just making a living. They're here doing what other people won't do. If you think that white America is going to come out here and pick these strawberries, you have been living in the dark for a long time."
While farmers worry about the effects of a federal crackdown on illegal immigrants, backers of legislation that would require verification say it would finally force employers to operate legally and would represent a major first step in fixing the nation's tattered immigration system.
Freshman Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state said a mandatory verification program would ensure that those who applied for jobs in the United States were "legally able" to take them while keeping employers accountable for their hiring.
"The federal government has a constitutional responsibility to defend our borders," Herrera Beutler said. "Unfortunately, for years it has failed to live up to that responsibility."
Mike Shelby, the executive director of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, said many producers in the state faced circumstances similar to Sakuma: "They're all vulnerable. .... We all agree that immigration reform needs to take place, but we have to be very careful how we approach it. Because if the first thing you do is interrupt the flow of labor for agriculture, you're taking an industry and putting it at tremendous risk."
For Sakuma, the answer is obvious: Allow the workers, who are paid by the pound for their strawberry picking and earn an average of more than $10 an hour this season, to become legal Americans.
"You call that amnesty or whatever you want to call it, it's just the right thing to do," he said. "We're responsible citizens, and we'll do what we believe is right, but change the damn law. That's the issue. Make it right."
About 270,000 businesses use the federal E-Verify program voluntarily, and backers say that number could jump to nearly 6 million if it became mandatory.
President Barack Obama endorsed the idea at a White House news conference in late June, saying he'd support requiring the use of E-Verify "if it's not riddled with errors" and if it's part of a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.
While several pieces of legislation dealing with E-Verify have been introduced in the current Congress, the main bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He objects to the president's strategy, saying E-Verify is important enough to stand alone.
Smith's bill, called the Legal Workforce Act, would require all employers to use the national database to confirm that workers are legal. He said it would open up millions of jobs for unemployed Americans. According to Smith, there are 24 million Americans who are unemployed or underemployed, while there are 7 million illegal immigrants working in the country.
"It is not an immigration bill, it's a jobs bill," he said.
Sakuma, one of eight owners of the Sakuma Brothers Farms, said farmers wanted a legal workforce "as much as anyone else" but that the system clearly was broken.
To make the point, he told a story about how his farm was raided a few years back by federal authorities, who found that some of his employees were in the country illegally.
"They hauled them down to the border," Sakuma said. "Three days later, they were standing in our office, but they had a different name and a different Social Security number."
Sakuma said he consulted with two immigration lawyers in Seattle: "Both of them told me the same thing. 'You have no choice but to hire them back. If they provide you with a name and they provide you a Social Security number, you have no choice but to believe them.' "
With so many politicians talking about border security, Sakuma worries that Congress will pass the mandatory E-Verify legislation. He just wants members to consider the consequences on farmers across the country.
"It's a tough issue. It's very complex, very complicated and it's very politicized," Sakuma said. "And I understand politics. But is that really what you want? If they had E-Verify here, you'd shut us down. Absolutely."
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