Immigration Reform: California Farmers Say Labor Is at Stake

May 21, 2013 01:19 AM

Hands trained and true, another new crop for a man ripe with experience. While searching for the perfect cherry, it’s his passion for immigration reform that lies close to his heart.

"I know how important they are to ag," says California fruit and vegetable grower Joe Del Bosque. "I've been on both sides. I've been in the field picking the crops. I've been in the pickup being the grower."

His family came to the land of opportunity during World War II. Growing up, picking crops at his parents’ feet, his drive to farm runs deep. He now owns a large vegetable and fruit operation selling produce to major chains like Whole Foods.

"The farmers need the workers to pick these crops, and the workers need the farmers to work for and to make their living," he says.

The immigration reform debate is heating up in Washington, D.C. The Senate version could make its way out of committee early this week. Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) says it could be on the Senate floor by mid-June. He believes more changes need to be made to the bill before he’ll support it, namely securing U.S. borders.

"So far, this bill doesn’t have enough border security in it," says Grassley. "In other words, the border is leaking; if you don’t stop the leak, what good is it going to do to pass an immigration bill? We’re right back where we were in 1986 when we passed a bill, thought we secured the border. We didn’t. Now, instead of having 3 million people here, as we did in 1986, we have 12 million people that are undocumented."

According to asparagus grower Barb Cecchini, that’s not the answer. She says as the borders become more secure, that essential workforce just isn’t there.

"We are having labor shortages heavier than we've ever seen," she says. "So that means we're going to have to let go about a third of our acres. We've only harvested for about six weeks. We usually harvest for 90 to 100 days."

The current Senate version calls for a path to citizenship for thousands of undocumented farm workers. With so many questions still surrounding the details of it all, Cecchini is skeptical about both immigration reform bills on the table today. She says while it means the workforce already in the U.S. remains, it’s the future that holds the most concern.

She says area farmers need a steady flow of workers coming to the U.S. when the crop is prime for picking, and in her opinion, the proposed legislation doesn’t ensure that.

"I don't think the immigration reform bill that's there is really going to help us," she says. "I think it's just going to be so cumbersome and so expensive, that we're not going to be growing crops that are labor-intensive."

While groups like the United Farm Workers of America and California Farm Bureau know the legislation isn’t perfect, they feel it’s better than the current system.

"It's a compromise," says Rayne Pegg, California Farm Bureau Manager of Federal Policy. "It didn't mean everyone got everything they wanted out of the bill. But we are pleased it's a serious bill that faces the reality. It looks at those who have been working in agriculture for many years and many decades and gives them legally a way to stay here."

"For years, the industry has said they want to have a legal and stable (workforce)," says Mark Grossman, spokesperson for United Farm Workers of America. "It offers them the relief that they seek, and it offers farm workers to stay in the country and get out of the vulnerability to abuse the legal status has plagued them with."

Meanwhile, for Del Bosque, he personally knows the risk involved with crossing the border and wants to make it easier on the workers who help harvest his crop each year.

"I know very much, for people who come and go, how difficult that is," he says. "They have to risk their lives, crossing the desert. They have to pay thousands of dollars they don't have to people who just get them from here to there, and then they come up here to a strange land, with no car, no money, only maybe with a contact of someone else, who can get them a job."

Just like Cecchini, he says making the borders more secure will only create more hardships on area farmers desperate for the workers willing to do a job many local residents don’t want.

"They are faithful to us; we deserve to be faithful to them," he says.


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5/22/2013 12:01 AM

  Tyne: You're preaching to the choir. Have Jeff Sessions from 'Bama read your article. P.S. I watch AGDay every morning at 5am at the gym. Michael Sprague Red Cloud, Nebraska


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