WASHINGTON — Walk the aisles of any neighborhood grocery store today and you’re as likely to find tomatoes picked in Sinaloa, Mexico, as Central California or oranges from Sao Paulo, Brazil, as Bradenton, Fla.
Farmers across the country warn that shoppers will find even more imported food on their store shelves if Congress fails to pass immigration legislation that would guarantee them enough workers to milk their cows and harvest their fruits and vegetables.
“The bottom line is people need to decide whether they’d rather import their labor or import their food,” said Randall Patterson, a China Grove, N.C., farmer who grows strawberries, cucumbers and watermelons among his crops.
The 52-year-old third-generation farmer employs about 140 foreign-born workers on his 1,200-acre farm legally through a federal system similar to the one a bipartisan team of senators want to overhaul and streamline.
But crops are being left to rot in fields from Florida to California and Washington state because farmers can’t find enough workers willing to pick their crops. And many of their former workers no longer show up because they fear being stopped by police on their way to the fields and deported. Many already have.
Of an estimated 2 million agriculture workers, according to United Farm Workers of America, some 70 percent are thought by union and agriculture officials to be working here illegally.
Addressing the agriculture labor shortages has been one of the less controversial issues in the immigration debate taking place on Capitol Hill. Many Republicans and Democrats agree that the agriculture industry is suffering because of a broken immigration system.
But resolving the matter for America’s farmers has been complicated because of opposition from those on the far ends of the debate. Many of those on the right oppose providing any legal path for those here illegally, and many of those on the left argue that the agriculture component must be addressed only as part of a comprehensive package.
A bipartisan proposal in the Senate that would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally would allow quicker legalization for agriculture workers.
They would be granted a special “blue card” that provides them legal status. After five years (vs. at least 10 for most other people here illegally), agriculture workers could apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship. The bill also calls for guest worker visas to be issued by the U.S. Agriculture Department, rather than the Department of Labor, to ensure a sufficient workforce.
The main arguments against legalizing immigrant agriculture workers is that those jobs ought to be held by Americans rather than people who broke the country’s immigration laws, and that Americans would do farm work if growers paid a fair wage.
One of the most outspoken opponents of the bipartisan Senate plan, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., raised those points at a recent Senate hearing, where he cited the April jobs report that showed millions remained unemployed and only 88,000 jobs being created.
“I’m also dubious about the idea that there are jobs Americans won’t do,” Sessions said. “I worked construction in the Alabama sun, hauling lumber and stuff. I know Americans do that every single day, tough work that’s done every day. Where I was raised . . . we were told to respect people who did hard work and not to say it’s a job an American won’t do. Any honorable labor is good.”
Yet, there are very few U.S.-born farm workers toiling in the fields.
Charles Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, a trade group, said the country can’t continue to produce food in the quantities it produces without its foreign-born workers.
“If that labor was not available to us,” Conner said, “. . . it would mean that we would get that food from somewhere else beyond the borders of the United States. And that’s just crazy to think that we would allow that to happen.”
Citing a 2008 study by Texas A&M University, he said some 80,000 acres of fresh fruit and vegetable production in California alone has been moved overseas because of labor shortages, a trend counter to the desires of Americans who want more and more information about the food they eat and who want it locally grown.
Many farmers say they’ve made multiple attempts to attract American workers to their farms.
Only seven U.S.-born workers in North Carolina completed the entire growing season in 2011, according to a new study by The Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development, groups that support an immigration overhaul.
Looking at data compiled by the North Carolina Growers Association, the authors found that just 268 out of nearly 500,000 unemployed North Carolinians applied for some 6,500 available jobs. More than 90 percent (245 people) of those applying were hired, but just 163 showed up for the first day of work.
Just over a handful stayed through the season.
The Senate plan would cap the number of guest worker agriculture visas at 112,333 a year. A House proposal introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would cap the number of guest worker visas at 500,000.
While the secretary of agriculture has the authority to raise or lower the cap based on market demands, some growers like Patterson worry there is a cap at all.
“How do they know after writing all that reform how many workers I’m going to need at my farm?” he asked. “Einstein couldn’t figure that out.”
The North Carolina Growers Association, of which Patterson is a member, is one of the few groups that uses the current guest worker plan. Lee Wicker, the association’s deputy director, estimates his members employ about 7,500 workers under the program.
But he said that if the legislation works as well as it’s been advertised and the illegal workforce is really blocked, then farmers will have few options other than the guest worker program. Wicker worries the caps are not nearly large enough to accommodate the need.
Based on the fact that North Carolina has a later growing season than California and more Southern regions, Wicker worries that his farmers could be left out of the mix if the caps are reached before the Carolina growing season gets going.
“We’re scared about the cap because a farmer could invest a huge amount of money and time planting and growing his crop thinking he’s going to be able to get adequate guest workers to come in and harvest, and then if the cap’s been met he won’t get them,” he said. “That makes us really nervous.”
It’s not just about importing food, but also exporting farmers, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno, Calif.-based Nisei Farmers League, which represents growers. He estimates that some 50 to 60 farmers from Central California have moved at least parts of their operations to Mexico.
Western Growers, an association representing farmers in California and Arizona, conducted an unscientific telephone survey of about 20 members in 2007 and found American companies farming more than 45,000 acres of land in Mexico and employing about 11,000 people.
P-R Farms, like farms up and down California and across the nation, has struggled to find enough workers to process its fruit. Pat Ricchiuti, 65, a third-generation owner of P-R Farms, has had to grow fewer high-intensity labor crops like peaches and plums and now focuses more on mechanically picked crops like almonds.
“We even had apples. It just got to be where good reliable help was hard to fine,” Ricchiuti said. “Washington needs to understand what agriculture is about. It’s not an industry that you can shut off, close the door and come back Monday morning.
“You have a certain number of hours that you can get a crop in. And that’s where labor and immigration become so much more important.”
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