California growers counting on Obama for immigration change

In the green folds of the Capay Valley, the scene at Full Belly Farm isn't that different from countless other California businesses with immigrant workers on their payrolls.

Everybody is hunkered down, thankful to have work – in this case, growing organic vegetables – and praying the economy improves with the coming Barack Obama administration's stimulus plans.

Once a promised middle class recovery is under way, Full Belly co-owner Judith Redmond said, business owners hope Obama will turn to immigration overhaul, as he also promised. It's a lightning rod issue, but they contend the problem needs to be confronted if the California and the U.S. economies are to have enough legal workers to meet long-term needs.

"It's about recognizing that we need this work force. We're not going to make this all go away," Redmond said.

She employs about 50 year-round, mostly Mexican workers and is president of the Davis-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

Lori Wolf, a Modesto landscaper, added that immigration change "is just not something that can be swept under the rug again. It's very important to a lot of people, especially in California."

Jim Abram, president of the California Hotel and Lodging Association in Sacramento, said his members also are eager for bipartisan talk on immigration.

"This is really a critical, critical issue – to have a stable work force that's not always living underground," Abram said.

For now, he said, the recession has halted the hospitality industry's almost chronic search for employees. But "this country's economy, once it gets back on its feet, will not be able to function without immigrant labor," he said.

Abram's is a controversial view, but it is shared by some labor union leaders and a number of economists and policymakers in Washington, D.C.

Business leaders acknowledge, however, that a staggering rise in unemployment hurts the chances of changing federal immigration policies anytime soon.

Obama's position on immigration, however, and some of his choices for his Cabinet and White House staff give reform advocates reasons for optimism.

During his presidential campaign, Obama frequently said he believed opening an earned path to legal status – with some hurdles – seemed the only sensible way to address an accumulation of millions of undocumented workers and family members here.

Obama's choice for Homeland Security secretary, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, has agreed with that view.

She called for the National Guard to be deployed along the Mexican border in Arizona as an emergency measure. But she also shares businesses' position that foreign workers are needed to fill shortages and that federal policies need to be enacted to better provide for that.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Obama's pick for commerce secretary, is Latino, understands Mexico, where he spent part of his childhood, and has views on immigration similar to Napolitano's.

Businesses are also celebrating Obama's choice for White House director of intergovernmental affairs. Cecilia Muñoz, an activist with the National Council of La Raza, has been a leading voice urging labor, business and rights groups to join together in pressing for immigration change.

Muñoz has also been a vocal critic of recent workplace raids and other "enforcement only" measures the Bush administration initiated last year.

Numbers USA and other groups promise, however, to keep pressure on the Obama administration. They want to reduce immigration and they oppose legalizing undocumented workers. They've argued that even before the downturn, there were enough Americans to fill job vacancies.

Businesses and labor unions have said they want Obama to temper workplace crackdowns, for now. But they also support greater enforcement of work document requirements – once the system is "modernized" to include visas for migrants to fill proven labor shortages.

Congress failed to change the visa system in 1986, an omission reform advocates say set the stage for an increase in undocumented workers.