News/US: Move to legalize farm workers takes root on Capitol Hill

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Subject: News/US: Move to legalize farm workers takes root on Capitol Hill
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Mon Jul 12 1999 - 14:08:54 EDT

Move to legalize farm workers takes root on Capitol Hill
A new bid for guest-worker legislation centers on a touchy issue: whether
to grant legal status to undocumented workers
By Alex Pulaski
The Oregonian, July 4, 1999

If the national debate on immigration and supply of farm workers could be
compressed into a single time and place, it might have been one recent
Sunday in Tom Buchholz's strawberry field.

There, in the muddy pre-dawn light of 4:30 a.m., Buchholz looked out and
saw 400 workers -- about twice as many as he needed for his 36 acres near
Mount Angel. Before the first pick could begin, the chaotic scramble for
Social Security cards and green cards -- they're pink now, actually -- and
immigration forms had to be completed.

Just as most farmers do, he complied with federal law by verifying that the
workers had the right documents. And just as most farmers suspect, he
figured that many of those official-looking cards were fakes, illegally but
easily obtained for $50 at a swap meet.

It's the big wink in the fields, where picker and producer neglect to
mention to each other their dependence upon a system fueled by forgers and
human smugglers.

But this year it appears that agriculture is more willing to push that
system into the light than it was in the past.

And as part of a package to guarantee a stable and legitimate work force,
farmers and lawmakers are broaching the touchy issue of offering some form
of permanent legal status to undocumented farm workers.

Although the legalization issue arose a year ago in a failed attempt by
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith to pass guest-worker legislation,
it was not a central part of the bill and received little attention.

This year, it looks as if legalization will be a primary vehicle in moving
a guest-worker bill, expected to be introduced on Capitol Hill in the next
week or two. A legalization component would be the first such mass proposal
since an amnesty law passed in 1986 allowed 3 million undocumented
immigrants to become permanent U.S. residents.

Moderates from both parties might be able to get behind such a legalization
plan to appease both farmers and worker advocates. But it would have to run
a gantlet between conservatives opposing any new immigration and liberals
refusing to endorse a guest-worker plan if unions will not support it.

"If they can't justify illegal immigrants doing the job, we either have to
remove these people or find a way to make them legal," said Ken Bailey, a
cherry farmer in The Dalles and past president of the National Council of
Agricultural Employers, the trade group primarily pushing guest-worker

"I don't think the government has the backbone to remove all these people,"
Bailey said. "But I'm not sure if it can legalize them, either. We've got
to find that place in the middle."

Farmers seek bipartisan support Some estimates indicate there are as many
as 1 million undocumented workers now performing field work in the United

But faced by a recent General Accounting Office study and other reports
debunking the idea that there will be worker shortages anytime soon, except
in isolated spots, farmers such as Bailey are focusing on the question of
legalizing workers.

Having seen its guest-worker bill die late in the session last year in the
face of a presidential veto, agricultural interests have been seeking to
enlist bipartisan support for another bill even before its introduction.

To that end, they have engaged, among others, Sens. Smith of Oregon and
Slade Gorton of Washington, Republicans from agriculturally strong states
with relatively little immigration, and Dianne Feinstein of California and
Bob Graham of Florida, Democrats from high-immigration and agriculturally
dominant states.

Democrat Wyden of Oregon has been involved but -- stung for supporting the
1998 guest-worker bill whose protections for workers were stripped away as
the bill advanced -- appears to be taking a lesser role than a year ago.

Feinstein's role and its significance are particularly hard to plumb.

Those in the negotiations say she and her aides have been closely involved,
a sign that bill supporters say indicates compromise can be reached.

But Feinstein's own aides are noncommittal.

"There have been discussions," said a tight-lipped spokesman, Howard Gantman.

Program brings millions to U.S. The farm industry's reliance on foreign and
marginalized workers to pick the food we eat stretches back for decades.

Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Oklahoma refugees fleeing the Dust Bowl,
Mexicans by the millions through the Bracero program, Haitians to work in
Florida's sugar cane fields.

The result, besides getting the crops in, has been a profound
interrelationship between cheap produce in U.S. grocery stores and the $3.2
billion that Mexican workers send home every year.

Its social and economic consequences are as evident as the satellite dishes
and California license plates in little towns in southern and central
Mexico or the Mexican bakery in downtown Woodburn.

The biggest worker program of them all was the Bracero program, signed in
1942 after farmers feared that World War II labor shortages would keep
crops from being picked. By the time it was shut down in 1964 -- plagued by
complaints of workers being ill-paid and ill-treated -- as many as 4.5
million Mexicans had agreed to leave their homes and temporarily pick in
the United States.

Among them was Salvador Castillo, now 80 and living in Corvallis, who
recalls picking for six to eight weeks each summer in 1960 and 1961.

The first summer was fine, he said, making $12 a day picking green beans
around Santa Rosa, Calif. He saved money to take home to his wife and five
children in the state of Jalisco. The worst thing he had to put up with was
eating only an apple and two pieces of bread for lunch because he couldn't
stand the bologna in his sandwich.

The second year, picking tomatoes near Stockton, Calif., was a different

There were too many workers and not enough work, so the pickers were in the
field only four hours a day. After paying $2.50 a day for room and board,
Castillo recalls being left with $27 for two weeks' work.

"I don't know why, but they treated us very badly," Castillo said. "The
ranchers said we were fat and lazy, and even though we came here to work we
ended up with pennies."

Guest-worker legislation today invariably draws parallels by worker
advocates to the Bracero program. The reason is that despite whatever
guarantees a bill could hold, such as salary floors and housing and
transportation provisions, it still would likely pin the worker to
whichever rancher brought him here.

That part bothers workers such as Jose Eustaquio, who would rather not pay
up to $1,200 to a smuggler to be brought across the border. But Eustaquio
fears a system that does not allow him to drive down the road to a
different job and more work.

"That's good for the rancher," he said. "But if we only end up working
three or four hours a day, what are we supposed to do?"

Or as migrant-worker attorney Michael Dale of Portland put it, "There needs
to be a portable right to work."

All of which is fine from where Buchholz stands at the edge of his
strawberry field. He thinks, as his father taught him, that if workers
aren't paid fairly and treated fairly, the farm won't run.

He also knows that it's a short season and he could ill afford, if targeted
by immigration authorities, to be forced to fire some of his crew if their
documents proved to be fakes.

And he knows that many workers are paying a heavy price to smugglers --
known as "coyotes" -- for the chance to make a U.S. buck.

"People are paying these coyotes a fortune to get across the border," he
said. "That's not helping these workers. All it's doing is filling the
pocket of the coyote."

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