CFBF President's Message: Labor quandary needs effective, workable solution

Issue Date: August 3, 2011
By Paul Wenger

Here we go again: "We're from the government and we're here to help."

This is the mantra we've been hearing as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has been developing legislation that will create a mandatory electronic employment verification system known as E-Verify. The bill was to be introduced before Congress recessed for the summer, but a little issue called the debt ceiling debate has delayed the introduction of Mr. Smith's bill until after the summer recess. This is a good thing, because there are a lot of concerns with an E-Verify bill that does not address agriculture's employment debacle, as an integral part of any immigration legislation.

Farmers and ranchers have been caught in a "Catch-22" ever since the last immigration legislation in 1986, known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act, promised an ongoing program would be developed that would provide access to a legal, immigrant work force. Politics made sure it never happened.

Today, farm and ranch employers are caught between government mandates. Farmers must require legal documents from prospective workers before they can hire them. Those same documents, such as Social Security cards, often can be made fraudulently with better quality than those manufactured by government printers. If agricultural employers don't ask enough questions, they can face governmental retribution for hiring someone with improper documentation. If they ask too many questions of a prospective employee, that person could file a discrimination claim against the farmer, again the result of a government mandate.

Added to this quandary is the fact that there hasn't been a program to legally document immigrant agricultural workers in 25 years; thus, it's generally accepted that half of agricultural workers have fraudulent documents (it's estimated that 12 million workers are in the U.S. illegally, with about 1.5 million working in agriculture).

Let's make a few things clear:

  • Rep. Smith has said E-Verify will create a legal, domestic work force.

That may be fine with most jobs, but not agriculture. Farmers and ranchers are the employer group that has made the case that no matter how high the unemployment rates, we depend on an immigrant work force. Farmers have proven time and again, coordinating with welfare-to-work programs, employment development departments and others: American-born workers cannot fill the entire demand of on-farm jobs. If E-Verify passes without an avenue to secure legally documented workers, agriculture will be left without a reliable work force.

  • "If agriculture only paid more for farm labor, there would be plenty of workers."

Wrong! It chaps my hide to continually hear that agriculture has only low-paying jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there are many entry-level jobs that start at minimum wage—just like other labor-intensive parts of our economy. Most agricultural employees make well above those minimum wages: You don't just have an entry-level employee drive a harvester that can cost more than the fanciest Mercedes. Workers who are compensated based on performance standards or piece rate often make $20 or $30 per hour or more. But it's hard work, it's outside in the elements—whatever they may be—and the work is seasonal, requiring those workers to migrate with the harvest.

  • "It's a matter of national security."

In fact, it is just the opposite. A system to get legal work credentials and cross the border when the work is available, then return home, would allow workers to return instead of staying in the U.S. If a process was in place for them to return home and then safely re-enter the U.S. when the work is available, they could. In addition, the reported problems with drug lords forcing those seeking work to act as "mules" for their drug trade, and threatening their family members back in Mexico, only multiplies the problems facing both immigrants and Border Patrol agents.

If a system was in place to allow workers to go through background checks and receive a forgery-proof work authorization document—biometrics like thumbprints and retinal scans are successfully implemented for government and industry security—this would reduce the number of people border agents would face crossing the border illegally. If would also allow border agents to step up their enforcement measures and defend themselves better, because once workers are directed through turnstiles, border agents can assume that people running across the border are more likely to be potentially violent and armed.

E-Verify legislation that does not include language providing for an agricultural worker program will be a disaster for American farmers and ranchers. At a time when our state and national economies are stymied, agriculture provides much-needed economic stimulus as well as the majority of the food products our country consumes. This in itself is an important component of our national security.

California Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, understands the challenges agricultural employers face and has written language that could be added as an amendment to the proposed E-Verify bill. After receiving input from a multitude of agricultural organizations, Mr. Lungren gave his proposed language to Mr. Smith and the House Judiciary Committee staff. It is imperative that any E-Verify legislation includes language to accommodate an agricultural worker program.

Some point to the existing H-2A program and propose amendments to it to provide for agricultural workers. The current H-2A program provides less than 10 percent of the agricultural worker demand and cannot provide workers in a timely manner for seasonal farm labor needs, which are complicated by weather and the perishable nature of many food products. As many other states develop their seasonal fruit and vegetable production, it only exacerbates the need for on-farm labor.

The future well-being of our country and its populace depends on our ability to grow, process, market and deliver the food and farm products that have been crucial in allowing the United States to become the strongest, longest-lasting democracy in the world. Immigrant labor has always been a part of that equation. If we are to continue to produce the safest, most diverse food products of any country, we need a workable, effective solution for our agricultural labor quandary.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.