Is Amnesty the Answer?

Next time someone tries to convince you that amnesty or “adjustment of status” will solve the labor problems present in the agricultural industry, remember this article.

This article provides one of the most compelling arguments against amnesty. Lets learn from the mistakes of history, shall we?

Originally published June 14, 1987

Dallas Morning News

Kevin B. Blackistone

Growers blame immigration act for labor woes, rotting crops

During the past two and a half weeks, 97 Texas workers traveled to Roy Malensky’s Hillsboro, Ore., strawberry patch to harvest a bumper crop. Malensky had paid for their transportation to Oregon and housed them.

“About 90 percent of my workers used to be illegal,’ Malensky said. “What I tried to do, with the new immigration law, was go out of state, because I knew I’d need workers.’

Once they arrived, however, the Texas workers refused to pick strawberries for minimum wage, Malensky said. And last week, a third or $600,000 worth of his crops went unharvested and spoiled.

Although Malensky is angered with the Texas Employment Commission, which referred the workers, he said ultimately the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was to blame.

“The labor shortage is extreme, and it’s because of this bill,’ he said. “None of our people (domestic workers) want to pick these crops.’

His charges echoed the sentiments of growers of seasonal, hand-picked produce throughout the West and Northwest who said the new law has precipitated a massive shortage of pickers that may cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.

Washington, the nation’s largest grower of cherries, reported it is 8,000 workers short of the 16,000 it needs this month to harvest that $60 million crop. Washington Gov. Booth Gardner last week considered mobilizing the National Guard and work-release prisoners to help in the fields.

Oregon, the nation’s second-largest grower of cherries, said it is 10,000 workers short of the number it needs for harvest.

And in the Fresno, Calif., area — where many of the nation’s raisins are produced — grape growers reported last week that they are short 15,000 workers.

Furthermore, employment officials in the major migrant farm worker supply states — Texas, Florida and California — said an anticipated increase in demand for harvesters within their own states will deplete their ability to help growers elsewhere.

“Frankly, the indigent people are unwilling to get out there and provide the services that are needed,’ said Dalton Hobbs, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “That’s why we need people from Mexico — to harvest these crops. If we can’t get this thing resolved, we’re looking at a $200 million to $300 million loss for our growers.’

The farm labor shortage crisis in the West and Northwest is the nightmare that many agriculture experts envisioned as the regulations of the new immigration law were being meted out in Washington.

The agriculture lobby on Capital Hill was able to get a special provision — known as the seasonal agricultural worker program or SAW — included in the regulations to retain migrant farm workers. But some farm labor experts said that now the SAW threatens to eliminate much of their labor.

The SAW program grants amnesty to undocumented workers who have worked in seasonal agriculture at least 90 days each year from May 1984 to May 1986 and had U.S. residency for at least six months each year.

It also grants amnesty to unauthorized aliens who performed seasonal work for at least 90 days between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986.

But many of those workers who may qualify are not expected by farm labor officials to remain in the fields.

“We anticipate the new law will have an impact as people qualify for SAW,’ said Rod Willis, a farm labor official with the Florida Department of Labor. “I would imagine a lot will qualify and want to get out of agriculture and that will create a shortage not too far down the road.’

Willis said Florida growers may opt for using another special provision in the new immigration law — the H-2A progam — to get farm workers. That program states that if enough domestic labor can not be found, a grower may bring in temporary piece workers from foreign countries.

But the law requires that the employer perform a labor market analysis to prove that they can not secure adequate domestic labor, and many farmers are unwilling to undertake the time-consuming procedure.

The gravity of the shortage brought several West Coast farm groups to Washington, D.C., last week to discuss their concerns with legislators and Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Alan C. Nelson. But the INS and other government officials offered the growers few remedies.

“The fact is there aren’t as many illegals coming across the border, and that’s the cause of the growers’ concern,’ INS spokesman Rick Kenney said. “But that’s the law, and the growers need to be open to some adaptation.’

In the past, Malensky and other growers in the West admitted they have relied heavily on migrant farm labor from the California and Texas valleys and from across the border in Mexico.

But the new immigration law and increased border patrols have kept many illegal Mexican migrants out of the U.S. farm workforce.

“People are just not coming across the border,’ said Mary Beth Lang, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Agriculture. “We need 16,000 people for harvesting cherries, and historically 50 percent have been migrants from Mexico.’

In addition, the number of migrants from Texas, California and Florida, who may have left those states to work in the West and Northwest, has been depleted as well, agriculture employment officials explained.

As a consequence, growers in Washington and Oregon, like Malensky, who queried migrant labor supply states for additional piece workers, found their requests brought few answers.

“Our job service centers had job orders last week for over 6,100 people that went unfilled,’ Lang said.

John McHugh, a TEC official said, Texas answered two orders last month from Oregon, including Malensky’s, for extra farm hands. But the TEC only was able to refer a total of 189 workers, McHugh said.

“They needed a lot more than we were able to provide,’ he said. “We didn’t really anticipate that kind of a load.

“We expect a lot more orders from local farmers and growers, and that will keep more people in state. What we could end up with is Texas no longer being a supply state,’ McHugh said.

Farm employment specialists in other supply states concurred with TEC officials.

“Our phones have been ringing off the hook,’ said David Webb, an official with the U.S. Department of Labor in San Francisco. “Prior to this immigration act, California was a surplus labor state. But when you realize as much as 75 percent of it was illegal, you’re going to have a vacuum. California is now more of a demand state.’