A Shortage of Mexican Laborers Threatens Arizona Farming

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"You do see a different work ethic in our neighbors [to the south] than you do in native-born American workers," he says. "It isn't a value judgment, but native-born American workers aren't interested in the jobs we have."

Despite farmers' concerns about laws that threaten their stable of workers, Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Legal Workforce Act (HR 2164) in June. It would require that all businesses across the country participate in E-Verify.

It's not that lawmakers are targeting the farming industry. In fact, Smith's proposal makes some concessions to the agriculture industry, a House Judiciary staff member tells New Times.

If the measure becomes law, U.S. employers would have two years to comply with the new regulations, but the farmers would have an additional year. And the rules wouldn't apply to current seasonal agricultural workers, only to those hired after the law's adoption.

It's not enough to assuage concerns.

"We are for secure borders, a legal workforce, employer sanctions, and an E-Verify system if we have a workable farm labor program that takes into account workers that already are here," says Nassif, on behalf of his coalition of Southwest farmers. "Under the currently proposed E-Verify system, our industry would be decimated."

Another problem for farmers is that the federal E-Verify system remains "vulnerable to identify theft and employer fraud," according to a December 2010 report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Opponents of Smith's proposed law also point out that E-Verify is largely ineffective. The GAO, in analyzing the federal program, also found that more than half of undocumented workers vetted by E-Verify were incorrectly confirmed as being authorized to work.

Gonzalez and other farmers ask for the requisite paperwork and identification from employees, but the federal system isn't capable of flagging someone with a stolen identity.

"Undocumented workers are not going to leave the country because Congress makes it harder for them to work here," writes a policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based think tank.

The Immigration Law Center suggests that, instead, employees "and their employers will simply find a way around E-Verify" and create an underground, cash economy that will rob federal, state, and local agencies of much-needed tax revenue.

And that is just part of the problem that agricultural lobbyists foresee.

When farmers plant fewer crops in anticipation of an unstable workforce, there isn't necessarily a shortage of that fruit or vegetable, because a farmer somewhere else is ready to fill the gap.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, says the new producers likely will be from another country.

"There is a stream of migrant workers that normally travels from Florida to Georgia," Regelbrugge says. "They pick peaches, peppers, and onions. But many are afraid to go, and the farmers end up with a shortage of workers. It destabilizes the farm . . . and, ultimately, production moves."

He says that once America loses that market share, it's very hard to get back, and it creates an economic ripple effect that goes far beyond the farm.

Fewer crops mean less income, making it difficult for a farmer to make payroll. Unpaid workers can't pay income taxes or spend money that drives sales tax revenues into local communities.

A farmer short on funds won't purchase machinery, will cut back on harvesting supplies, pesticides, and chemicals to keep the crops healthy, and will require fewer services from business that aid in the processing of the land's yield, including wood pallets used to stack and move around the produce, cardboard boxes for packing, and trucks and truck drivers to deliver the goods across the country.

"There is all this economic activity around farms," he says. "And it dries up if the farming does. In an effort to save U.S. jobs, they are actually killing our jobs."

Industry leaders say they are working with Congressman Smith and other federal lawmakers to develop a "workable guest-worker program."

"We're hopeful they'll work out a deal to provide a legal way for workers to come," says Wendy Fink-Weber, a spokeswoman for Western Growers, an agricultural trade association representing farmers in Arizona and California.

She says a guest-worker plan can't ignore the existing workers already working on U.S. farms.

Smith intends to introduce a guest-worker program in September, a House Judiciary staff member tells New Times.

"This will help the [agricultural] industry hire a legal workforce and help them to continue growing our crops and our economy — there is consensus that the current H-2A program is broken," the staffer says.

Santiago Gonzalez and farmers across the country know firsthand that Americans simply don't want the difficult jobs picking produce in farm fields with the sun beating down on them.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo