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.’


Farmers feel punished by H-2A…

We discovered this story that ran in the Glasgow Daily Times in Kentucky.

May 2, 2011

Farmers feel punished by H-2A regulations

Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — Local tobacco farmers feel like they’re being penalized for using legal foreign workers to help them during the tobacco season.

“We’re trying to do it right … and we’re the ones who are getting punished,” said Al Pedigo, who owns a 200-acre tobacco farm in Fountain Run.

Pedigo is one of many local farmers who are part of the H-2A program, which allows farmers to apply for permission from the government to bring foreign workers across the border to work seasonal jobs cutting, stripping and housing tobacco. Pedigo said he is thankful for the H-2A program, but the regulations implemented by the government in 2008 and again in 2010 have made it more difficult and much more costly for farmers.

In the last year, the minimum required wage rate for an H-2A worker has increased from $7.40/hour to $9.48/hour. The farmer is also required to pay that same wage to any U.S. worker on the farm. On top of the wage increase, extra fees for the farmers have increased. Where a farmer used to pay for his H-2A workers to get from the U.S. border to the farm, he now has to pay for the workers to get from their home to the farm. Ricky Gray said last year he paid his local H-2A agent about $2,000, and this year he is paying him $3,400.

Gray, who has been raising tobacco for about 30 years and has been part of the H-2A program for the last 15 years, said the Department of Labor officials seem to think the wage and fee increase will both encourage farmers to use U.S. workers and encourage U.S. workers to apply for the jobs. But there just aren’t U.S. workers who want the tobacco jobs, he said.

“They think if we pay them enough, they’ll come. And they’re badly mistaken,” Gray said.

Pedigo said that in the last five years, he had not had a single U.S. worker show more than a passing interest in a job in the tobacco fields. Most U.S. workers are not willing to work the hours that tobacco requires, such as working on a Saturday if it rained during the week. The government doesn’t seem to understand that U.S. workers don’t want to deal with tobacco’s physical demands or the demands on their time.

“I feel like the government is discouraging us from using these workers, and I’m sure they are, but there just aren’t other workers to do this physical, seasonal work,” Pedigo said.

With the new referral system implemented this year, Pedigo now has five U.S. workers in his fields. They have been working fine, he said, but two did not show up for work on Friday and did not call. Maybe a couple of the workers will work out, but he doesn’t have high hopes that they will last through the peak of the season.

“I don’t think they’ll be able to do the work,” he said. “Maybe they can.”

Gray has never had U.S. workers either, and in 15 years of using H-2A workers, he has only had two not finish the season.

“They come to work,” Gray said. “If I don’t have work for them, they’re not happy.”

Gray has the same H-2A workers come to his farm every year for the tobacco season, and he said they have become friends as well as employees.

“My guys, they love working for me,” he said. “I’m very close with all my workers … I think a lot of these guys and they depend on me as much as I depend on them.”

When asked if his H-2A workers would work for less than the required $9.48/hour, Gray’s response was, “Oh, Lord yes.”

Gray said his pay rate per stick of tobacco keeps him above the required minimum wage, but he and Pedigo both said that the $9.48 is more than it should be during parts of the season. And since the workers make more during the season’s peak, a lower wage during the slow part of the season would not hurt the workers. Gray pointed out that it doesn’t make sense that the wage requirement increased when the price of tobacco did not.

“We’re not getting any more for our product,” he said. “We get paid the same as last year.”

Another key component of the new H-2A regulations is the paperwork. Gray said he has at least an hour of paperwork each night, and Pedigo said he spends five to six hours a week on paperwork. When applying for H-2A each year, Pedigo said it takes him about an hour in paperwork per employee, which in his case means 22. But despite the time commitment, Pedigo said he does feel like the paperwork is helpful in making sure farmers don’t fall behind.

“Now that we’re doing it, it’s really made us better, more efficient …” Pedigo said. “It seems like a lot when you start, but you make it work.”

Gray said he stays on top of his paperwork, but it concerns him that if he misses something in all those papers, it could lead to big fines for him.

“I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t understand a lot of the stuff I read,” he said.

According to Karen Garnett, assistant district director of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, one missed document could lead to $1,500 in fines per H-2A worker. Garnett led an information session for farmers in Glasgow on April 19, and she quoted a long list of requirements for farmers. But Gray said he has never seen the form she was quoting.

All the requirements of the new H-2A regulations, with the threat of fines constantly looming over farmers’ heads, make local tobacco farmers like Pedigo and Gray feel like they are being punished when they are trying to keep up with their piles of paperwork. But Pedigo and Gray agree that they need the H-2A program to continue to raise tobacco.

“If it hadn’t been for the H-2A program, I’da quit raising tobacco a long time ago,” Gray said.

“I think the H-2A program is good and it affords farmers the opportunity to get dependable workers …” Pedigo said. “I don’t think I could grow tobacco now without it, or at least not at the scale that I’m trying to grow it.”