News/US: Growers push plan to legalize workers

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Subject: News/US: Growers push plan to legalize workers
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Wed Nov 24 1999 - 12:39:36 EST


Growers push plan to legalize workers
Advocates for undocumented immigrants say it would continue exploitation of
farm laborers
John Ritter
USA TODAY, November 19, 1999

FRESNO, Calif. -- Here in agriculture's mother lode, where a single county
produces more food than most states, undocumented Mexican immigrants like
Fernando Andrade do the bulk of the work. Tens of thousands of people who
immigrated illegally pick and pack more than 200 different crops worth $
3.3 billion a year.

>From Florida to Washington state, undocumented foreign workers are the
backbone of a system that supplies American consumers with the world's
cheapest fruit and vegetables.

However, the system is shaky, and growers know it. They're pushing a plan
in Congress that they say would create a stable workforce by permitting
more than half a million undocumented immigrants to become legal residents
if they work five years in agriculture.

Farm-worker advocates are opposed, and the debate is reviving the bitterly
divisive concept of amnesty for people who immigrated illegally. It is
exposing the federal government's lax enforcement of immigration laws in
agriculture. And it is dramatizing the need for changes in a system that
serves neither farmer nor worker well.

"Both sides agree the current situation is untenable," says Demetrios
Papademetriou, co-director of migration policy at the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace. "But agribusiness says we have to have all the
workers we want when we want them -- and at the wages we want. Organized
labor says over our dead bodies."

To farm workers like Andrade, the growers' plan offers a chance not only to
gain permanent U.S. status but to avoid the expense and danger of hiring
"coyotes" to guide them past a Border Patrol intent on sealing the Mexican
border.

'No more Mexico'

Andrade, pruning peach trees in a 50-acre orchard south of here, says he
might not risk another border crossing.

"Maybe no go back and maybe stay here and no more Mexico," he says. "It's
real hard to come back."

Opponents ridicule the plan, spelled out in a Senate bill introduced late
last month, as merely the growers' latest ploy to exploit foreign farm
workers, hold down wages and ensure a lasting supply of cheap labor. U.S.
citizens generally shun farm work because it is low paying, seasonal and
physically demanding.

"It's taking undocumented workers and turning them into indentured
servants," says Joel Najar, a policy analyst for the National Council of La
Raza, an advocacy group for Hispanics. "It's a raw deal that ignores the
humanity of these people."

Estimates of the number of illegal farm workers run as high as 800,000. The
Senate bill would allow most of them to apply, essentially, for amnesty. If
they worked in agriculture at least 1,040 hours or 180 days a year for five
years, they'd be eligible for green cards.

Then they could leave farm work for jobs in other industries. During the
five years, they could stay in the USA no more than 300 days in any year
but would be free to return home, to cross the border legally without hassle.

Growers say they're uneasy that illegal immigrants make up an ever-larger
share of their workers. After Congress passed a general amnesty for illegal
immigrants in 1986, more than 1 million undocumented farm workers gained
green cards. By the early 1990s, many had left farm work, and agriculture's
proportion of undocumented workers dropped to 7%. Today, it is nearly 50%
and rising. Here in California's Central Valley, it's 70% to 80%, growers say.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't seek out and deport
illegal farm workers. Farms accounted for less than 5% of INS enforcement
visits, according to a 1997 study by the General Accounting Office (GAO),
Congress' investigative arm. Of 77 INS operations in Fresno County in the
past 12 months, none was in agriculture, spokeswoman Sharon Rummery says.
INS officials in Washington say the agency's priorities are illegal
immigrants who commit crimes and smugglers who bring in immigrants.

However, the GAO found that the prevalence of illegal workers leaves
growers vulnerable to sudden labor shortages should INS target them.
Growers say both INS and the Social Security Administration are cracking
down with audits to ferret out illegal workers with fake documents.

"I know the workers are fraudulently documented," says Jane Logoluso
Bautista of Logoluso Farms, one of the valley's biggest growers. "I know
I'm not going to be able to play these games that everyone's been playing
very much longer."

Growers complain that fewer familiar faces return to the fields and
orchards each year. New, inexperienced workers mean higher training costs
and lower-quality work.

Donald Laub, who farms grapes on 1,150 acres, says no more than a fifth of
his workers came back this year. "Continuity is so important," he says.
"These people know what you want, they've been trained in how you do it,
not how your neighbor does it."

Worker advocates argue that better pay, not more foreign workers, would
stabilize the workforce. They say many of the abuses and injustices that
have long plagued migrant labor would still exist under the growers' plan.
Illegal workers would be just as afraid as ever to speak up about
substandard wages or working conditions.

"I don't see anything in that argument. They have freedom," says David
Jackson, who farms 1,500 acres of peaches and other fruit. "If an employer
doesn't treat them right, they're free to go across the street and work for
someone else."

Working conditions in seasonal agriculture have improved since the '60s,
when migrants worked oppressive hours and lived in crowded, filthy shacks.
However, in California, where affordable housing is scarce, farm-worker
families still double- and triple-up.

Undocumented workers live in fear of authorities and often avoid health
clinics and other social services. Growers say workers fulfilling a
five-year commitment to agriculture would get the full protection of U.S.
labor laws.

Worker advocates say labor laws have never been adequately enforced on the
farm, and a worker whose dream is a green card wouldn't dare stand up for
his rights.

"Workers without papers will still be easy targets for exploitation if they
complain," says Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., says, "That's an argument for doing nothing,
because it assumes that no change in law would make any difference."
Graham, a sponsor of the bill, says the Labor Department would get more
enforcement funding.

Growers say worker shortages cost them. Worker advocates say that labor is
plentiful and that growers always want to enlarge the worker pool to
suppress wages.

'Crying wolf'

Most agricultural economists say spot shortages can cause local turmoil in
an industry that otherwise enjoys a surplus of farm workers. The GAO looked
at 20 fruit and vegetable counties and found that 19 had unemployment rates
higher than the U.S. average. It concluded, "Ample supplies of farm labor
appear to be available."

"There's a bit of crying wolf going on," says David Lighthall, director of
the California Institute for Rural Studies. "Growers want an oversupply to
minimize their risk. That's the best scenario for them."

To growers' claims that they need cheap labor to compete globally,
opponents cite Agriculture Department statistics showing that the value of
fruit, vegetables and horticulture grew 52% to $ 15.1 billion from '86 to
'95. Those crops' export value more than tripled to $ 10.6 billion.

"We're competing quite well . . . and farm workers have not shared in
that," says Bruce Goldstein of the Farm Worker Justice Fund.

In 1996, field workers' wages averaged $ 6.17 an hour, a 7% drop since 1977
after adjusting for inflation, an Agriculture Department survey of growers
found. Surveys of workers have found double-digit declines. Worker
advocates say the typical undocumented laborer makes minimum wage or
slightly above.

Growers say low labor costs ensure low prices at the supermarket. However,
an Iowa State University study found that a 30% jump in wages would push
fruit and vegetable prices up just 6%. Worker advocates say higher pay will
force growers to mechanize more, but growers say the perfect fruit
Americans demand can't be picked by a machine.

Melanie Orhant

morhant@igc.org
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