Congress needs migrant worker bill

By From page A4 | February 13, 2012


Congress, in its effort to root out illegal immigrants working in America, is considering tightening employment verification regulations.

But the unintended consequence of that is to damage farmers in California and a lot of other states who rely on immigrant farm laborers who travel with the seasons and the crops. Some are permanent laborers for dairies and crops such as vineyards and raisin grapes that need year-round tending.

“E-Verify without a workable, economical way to ensure a legal agricultural work force will be a disaster for American agriculture,” California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger told the committee, adding that experience has shown that “there is no realistic prospect of a domestic work force for agriculture, even with current high unemployment rates.”

Alabama is an example of what havoc can be wreaked with overkill on undocumented immigrants. Farmers there lost their best farm workers. When unemployed Alabamans tried farm work they didn’t even last a day. This isn’t a country of farm boys anymore.

As the U.S. labor force has grown older, more urban and focused on year-round jobs with predictable work hours, Wenger said, “our native-born seek other jobs outside the agriculture sector.” That means that farms and ranches rely on hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers — and experts estimate many do not have legal authorization to work in the U.S.

“The daunting reality is that a true solution must be capable of converting or replacing these workers with legally authorized workers,” Wenger said, noting that the existing immigration program for agriculture, known as H-2A, has proven inadequate. Less than 5 percent of the current agricultural work force is employed through H-2A.

Congress needs to tailor a program specifically for farm labor. It needs to be a program that would allow the farm laborers to return to their homes in Mexico in the winter and then come back across the border in the spring to work on American farms.

This is an immediate need as important as securing the border against infiltration by drugs gangs and illegal border crossers.

“We support improving the H-2A program, but that cannot be the only solution,” Wenger said. “The closer a new program comes to replicating the way the farm labor force needs to move among employers and crops based on seasons and the weather, the more likely it will be able to meet the needs of farmers and farm employees.”

While a workable agricultural immigration program must succeed for farmers who grow perishable crops, he said, it must also benefit dairy farms, livestock ranches, nurseries and other employers with year-round needs, and must accommodate the large, experienced work force already employed on farms and ranches.

Our country’s food supply depends on these workers from Mexico. This has to be recognized and a realistic program created to allow these immigrants to continue working for American farmers.

Mountain Democrat

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