From the flat lettuce fields of the South Bay to the sloping citrus orchards and avocado groves of Fallbrook, San Diego County farmers are breathing a collective sigh of relief these days.
Only a few short months ago, those in the beleaguered agricultural industry were sick with worry over the immigration bill moving through Congress, fearful that it would rob farmers of the migrant workers who are the backbone of the field labor force.
Instead, the landmark legislation President Reagan signed a month ago has left most local farmers murmuring a common refrain: It could have been worse.
"It's not a perfect bill, and we're all going to have to make some adjustments to get by in the new ballgame," said Bob Vice, a Valley Center grower and Del Mar Fair Board member who was involved with the legislation through the state's farm lobby. "But considering what might have been, I'd say agriculture came out looking pretty darn good."
In particular, the bill provides the farm industry with a special, surprisingly generous, amnesty program that applies only to agricultural workers. The legislation also includes a long-sought requirement that U.S. Border Patrol agents obtain search warrants before entering private fields and groves to look for people in the United States illegally.
A third important victory, farmers say, is that the bill includes a so-called "replenishment program," designed to permit an emergency infusion of foreign workers should a shortage in the agricultural labor pool occur.
The law also contains provisions that will make the transition period much easier on growers than on employers in other industries. Farmers may hire illegal aliens to work in the fields without penalty until Nov. 30, 1988; for other industries, the grace period expires in June, 1987.
After the grace period, growers will face relatively stiff penalties if they hire illegal aliens. Penalties range from fines of $200 to $2,000 for a first offense to a fine of $3,000 and six months in jail for a "pattern" of abuse. Merely failing to maintain proper records can bring a farmer fines of up to $1,000 per worker. (Illegal aliens make up an estimated 80% of the roughly 62,000 farm workers in the county at peak season.)
Despite the fact that the bill has several appealing aspects, local farmers and agricultural experts with a statewide perspective agree that the full impact of the law will not be known until the U.S. Justice Department drafts guidelines for its implementation.
These guidelines--covering everything from the amount of proof a worker must present in order to qualify for legal status to the administrative steps an employer must take to make sure a candidate is in the country legally--will determine whether the law lives up to its potential or becomes a bureaucratic nightmare for farmers, according to industry sources familiar with the bill.
"Congress has provided the attorney general with a very bare skeleton, and we're all watching anxiously to see what sort of meat will end up on it," said George Daniels, general manager of the Farm Employer's Labor Service, a Sacramento-based agricultural consulting firm with clients throughout California.
"My greatest fear is that the various agencies involved in writing these regulations will interpret the law too restrictively. If that happens, it will be a disaster for all concerned."
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) says that many uncertainties remain and that he sympathizes with the farmers' uneasiness. He believes, though, that government officials will consider the concerns of agriculture in drafting the regulations and will produce a "sensitive" and "workable" system.
"There are a lot of unknowns right now, and our farmers are understandably nervous," said Packard, whose 43rd District includes most of the farmland remaining in San Diego County. "But in the end I think they will view the law as a positive thing allowing them to finally get the labor they need legally."
The federal guidelines will be prepared over the next six months by the Justice Department in consultation with the U.S. Departments of Labor and Agriculture and with other agencies affected by the immigration bill.
Perhaps the greatest worry expressed by local farmers is that these regulations will create an unwieldy bureaucratic system that will make them difficult and costly to administer. If that occurs, growers say, farmers will either be forced out of business or decide to ignore the law and continue to use illegal labor despite the risks.
"Elements of this bill have the potential for creating a paper blizzard, and that scares me," said Charlie Wolk, an avocado and citrus grower with 200 acres in Fallbrook. "We could end up with a system that makes it so onerous, expensive and cumbersome to comply with the law that people will either go under trying . . . or break it."