Worker Shortages Drives Farm Embrace of Immigration Plan

Labor shortages that left crops rotting in fields have farm organizations backing a U.S. Senate immigration proposal that would treat workers in agriculture “differently” than in other industries.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the United Farm Workers as well as fresh-produce groups representing companies including Kroger Co., Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Sunkist Growers Inc. say they’re involved in discussions with lawmakers in the first serious attempt to revamp immigration law since 2007. A bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled a statement of principles for the plan yesterday, and today the proposal received President Barack Obama’s backing.

The Senate plan acknowledges the need to maintain an adequate food supply and offers a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, including workers in agriculture, which relies on illegal labor more than any other industry. About 25 percent of the farm workforce is unauthorized, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, with heavy concentrations in the fruit and vegetable sector.

“We appreciate the Senate’s recognition of agriculture’s unique needs,” Kristi Boswell, a labor analyst for the Farm Bureau, said yesterday. “We’re working for a program that works for the strawberry grower in California and the dairies in the Midwest and the apple grower in upstate New York.”

Obama Backing

While details of the plan are still being worked out, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said he hopes a bill can be written by March and passed by his chamber by midyear. Obama largely endorsed the senators’ proposals today in a speech in Las Vegas in which he offered few specifics of his own, saying “action must follow” the Senate’s opening move.

“We have to bring the shadow economy into the light so that everybody’s held accountable -- businesses for who they hire and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law,” Obama said. “That’s common sense.”

Low-wage, backbreaking jobs in orchards and on farms and ranches tend to be unattractive to U.S. citizens yet draw immigrants who often become highly skilled at the tasks, Boswell said. The Farm Bureau is the largest U.S. farmer group.

Worker Shortage

Because immigration policy is so flawed, growers can’t be certain enough workers will be available at harvest, she said.

A California Farm Bureau study last year found that 71 percent of tree-fruit growers and almost 80 percent of raisin and berry growers couldn’t find enough workers to prune trees or vines or pick the crops. The situation has prompted food companies to turn for their supplies to Brazil, Mexico and other countries where the labor force is more reliable, said Ken Barbic, a spokesman with the Western Growers Association, which represents fruit and vegetable producers.

Unlike some immigrant-reliant industries, agriculture is competing in a global market, he said. Companies buy from other countries not necessarily because the goods are cheaper -- “they go there because they have a consistent labor supply,” Barbic said.

The senators justify special treatment for agricultural workers by citing the need for an adequate domestic food supply. Farmworkers “will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under our new agricultural worker program,” according to their statement of principles.

Bipartisan Effort

Along with Schumer, the Senate group includes Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado, as well as Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Any proposal to grant legal status to farmworkers will boomerang by giving those workers access to nonfarm jobs they will then fill, opening up agriculture to a new wave of undocumented immigrants, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group opposed to the proposal. Undocumented workers are less a function of poor policy than the industry’s economics, he said.

New legislation “won’t change the circumstances that led to illegal workers” to fill farm jobs, including low wages and poor work conditions, he said. “Agriculture relies on manual labor because it’s cheap.”