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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Farmers Urge Congress to Legalize Agriculture Workers - Obama Move Will Help Only a Fraction of the Undocumented Immigrants Toiling on Nation’s Fields, Farmers Say

From The Wall Street Journal:

For four years, Fred Leitz has seen vegetables and fruits on his 600-acre family farm go unpicked. For even longer, he has been urging Congress to pass an immigration overhaul that solves the labor shortage.

“We’ve gotten nowhere,” said the fourth-generation Michigan grower, who visits Washington four or five times a year.

President Barack Obama took executive action Friday to temporarily legalize millions of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, though the program doesn’t specifically address agriculture. Under the plan, an estimated 250,000 farm workers likely would be eligible for relief from deportation and for work permits, the United Farmworkers Union said. That is a fraction of total number of undocumented workers toiling in U.S. fields, say farmers, who hope that Mr. Obama’s decision to take unilateral action will propel Congress to achieve a legislative solution that addresses agriculture workforce needs.

“Our concern is they are so busy pointing fingers at each other they won’t get down to business,” said Ed Schoen, a New York dairy farmer and board member of the Dairy Farmers of America, which represents a third of U.S. dairy farmers.

“Hopefully, this motivates them to come together to work on a fix to the broken immigration laws,” said Ralph Broetje, a Washington state apple grower who employs more than 2,000 workers, the vast majority of them immigrants.

More than half of all field workers are undocumented, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and many farmer groups estimate the share to be higher than 70%.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, an association that represents hundreds of farmers in California and Arizona, said that “preventing the implementation of executive actions alone is not enough,” referring to GOP threats to scuttle Mr. Obama’s plan. “These actions by the president should also serve as a catalyst for Congress to lead,” he said, adding that U.S. agriculture is in jeopardy.

Frustration is running so high that farmers like Mr. Leitz say they have started to withhold contributions from Republicans in elections. “I’m not giving any more to guys who haven’t helped us,” said the farmer, who describes his politics as “very conservative.”

Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, said, “I am personally aware of farmers and small-business people who would normally support Republicans but have ceased political contributions generally, out of frustration over Congress’ inability to find common ground and solve the problem.”

Ideally, farmers say, a congressional fix would legalize undocumented field workers and encourage them to stay in agriculture, as well as include provisions to ensure a steady flow of seasonal workers who could enter and leave the country with relative ease.

Most growers shun the current guest-worker program, known as H-2A, which they say involves multiple steps and a variety of federal agencies that make it expensive, bureaucratic and inefficient.

Farm workers who benefited from the last legalization program, an amnesty in 1986, represent just 10% of today’s field workers, and many of them are aging. The average age of farm workers overall is about 37 years old, according to government data, up from 31 in 2000.

All told, the shrinking supply of workers has led farm wages to rise across the country. Mark Gilson, a nurseryman in Perry, Ohio, says that he still has had trouble finding enough workers for three years. Brenda Alford, a potato farmer in Pasco, Wash., said that a few years ago her family had to “plow out” 500 acres of asparagus. “The labor shortage hasn’t gotten any better,” she said.

The president’s plan drew criticism for failing to put in place any measures to discourage an exodus from agriculture among immigrants who benefit from relief. As the oil industry booms and construction recovers, those fields are likely to compete for the same workers, farmers say.

“The way Obama went about this is going to further devastate agriculture. We are going to lose labor,” said Steve Scaroni, a labor contractor who operates in Salinas, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz.

Some farmers are also concerned they could be legally obligated to fire newly protected workers under the Obama plan, if they admit they lied about their immigration status to secure their jobs, said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.

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