A Shortage of Mexican Laborers Threatens Arizona Farming

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It's rare to see a woman in the fields. He isn't sure that her slight frame can handle the job, but he gives her the go-ahead. Weeks later, when the melons are ready for picking, the couple is a no-show. Gonzalez doesn't seem surprised.

For years, industry leaders have been sounding the alarm that worker shortages will shutter farms and have a devastating impact on the economies of farm-dependent rural communities.

During recent testimony before Congress, Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers said that "it is no exaggeration to say that the onslaught of federal regulations now confronting farmers and ranchers across America is truly overwhelming. A farmer trying to manage his land and his crops knows one thing — the federal government is making it tougher and tougher to make a living from the land."

Though it is primarily the farmers who are struggling, industry leaders say that consumers and communities will ultimately pay the price. The loss of American farms means the loss of American jobs, and the United States will grow increasingly dependent on foreign countries for its supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other raw goods.

The United States imports 60 percent of its fruits and nuts, about 25 percent from Mexico and the rest from Chile, Costa Rica, and China. Mexico also accounts for about 70 percent of all the fresh vegetables imported into the United States.

Before he died in 2008, a man named James S. Holt was regarded as a national expert on agricultural labor. He examined not only the production of fruits and vegetables in the United States, but also the nation's share of the global produce market.

In various publications, he noted that consumer demand for labor-intensive fruits and vegetables, such as melons and strawberries, was growing, but most of the demand was being filled by other countries.

America's share of those markets has been shrinking steadily over the past few years.

But concerns are falling on the deaf ears of politicians.

One measure being floated in Washington, D.C., would require all businesses across the country to participate in E-Verify, a federal database that checks whether someone is legally eligible to work in the country.

Mandatory participation in the program is already law in Arizona. That law took effect in 2008 and was promptly challenged in court. A federal judge ruled in favor of the law on May 26. The same day, at least 31 other states introduced similar legislation.

Though it is a broad measure meant to protect all American jobs from illegal immigrants, the agricultural industry argues it will be hard-hit by the measure since, as it readily admits, as much as 80 percent of its workforce across the country consists of unauthorized workers.

Finding enough U.S.-born workers to harvest crops isn't a viable option, and H-2A visas, the only ones designated for importing seasonal agricultural workers, are "unwieldy and bureaucratic . . . [and] pretty much designed not to work," according to the Arizona Farm Bureau.

In a February letter to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, one of the bodies vetting the E-Verify proposal, the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, reminded lawmakers that past efforts to recruit American farmworkers "have failed miserably, clearly demonstrating time and again that there is not a domestic workforce sufficient to meet the need."

Consider that in the late 1990s, state and county agencies in California launched a "welfare-to-farm-work" program in the state's Central Valley at a time when regional unemployment was as high as 20 percent in some areas. A massive campaign addressed training, transportation, and other obstacles to getting workers in the fields.

Though there were more than 100,000 potential workers, only three jobs were filled.

In Washington State, a labor shortage for the 2006 cherry harvest prompted an advertising blitz to recruit about 1,700 needed workers, particularly for the much larger apple harvest that was just around the corner. Only 40 people took jobs.

The following year in North Carolina, farm officials set up a statewide hotline to fill about 60,000 crop and livestock jobs.

"Two calls were received; one was from a grandmother who felt that farm work would be good for her grandson," the Agricultural Coalition wrote in their letter to federal lawmakers.

Most recently, the United Farm Workers kicked off a "Take Our Jobs" program with a media campaign in 2010 that even included airtime on the show of political comedian Stephen Colbert. By October, more than 10,000 people sought out more information, but only nine actually took jobs in the fields.

"Most of them quit after a few days or weeks," the Coalition reported.

Joe Sigg, who has been lobbying on behalf of the Arizona Farm Bureau for about a decade, says even that as farm wages continue to rise, performing hard labor outdoors is not for everyone.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo