Commentary: Immigrant labor is a necessity

If national polls are any judge, there is a good chance your mind is closed on immigration.

You see the U.S.-Mexico border as a sieve. You can't discern the farmworker from the drug dealer in crowds of brown people.

They're all lawbreakers to you. Our economy is in tatters, so let's blame the Mexicans.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not immune to this climate. On Friday, he ordered California National Guard troops deployed in support of President Barack Obama's call for more troops to fortify the U.S-Mexico border over the next year. It's the usual drill on immigration: show over substance. But there is a man who works in Sacramento and promotes reality over rhetoric.

Paul Wenger, a Modesto almond and walnut farmer, is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, the largest general agricultural group in the state.

Wenger recently helped talk Meg Whitman, the GOP candidate for governor, off a ledge of immigration rhetoric. She had pledged earlier in her campaign to raid California businesses in search of illegal workers.

It sounded good to the red-meat masses, but Whitman now advocates tamper-proof IDs for workers — an idea promoted by Wenger's group.

"If we could hire from within our borders it would be great, but people are not lining up," Wenger said Friday. He added that California farmers have gone to state officials in search of American workers to pick crops.

"We would say we needed 90 workers, and five showed up and none went out to the fields. ... A lot of people are unwilling to do what we do in seasonal agriculture in California. It's not enjoyable work."

Agriculture is one of California's bedrock industries. It depends on immigrant labor and is a magnet for it.

"We hear people say they want immigrants to come through as immigrants once did at Ellis Island … that they should get in line," Wenger said. "There is no line."

Wenger said he has an employee who became a legal resident in 1986, promptly applied to bring his brother from Mexico legally — and is still waiting.

With the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Wenger's group promotes a path to citizenship for illegal workers. Feinstein's AgJobs bill is also supported by the United Farm Workers union and calls for tamper-proof ID cards for immigrant workers. It's stalled in the U.S. Senate, a casualty of a reason-free immigration debate.

"We have to have a definitive way for people looking for jobs to come through the turnstile legally," Wenger said.

Whitman worked hard to get the endorsement of Wenger's group because it means a lot in California political circles.

"Trying to get our message across isn't easy," Wenger said. "While we have all this rhetoric, (immigration) is almost like abortion."