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Relax Rules to Assist Growers, Wilson Asks INS

June 19, 1987|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

Sen. Pete Wilson, responding to the fears of California farmers who say a labor shortage threatens this year's harvest, asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Thursday to relax its enforcement of the new immigration law to "avoid the disaster of fruit rotting on the trees."

"You've got an emergency on your hands, and you can't just deal with it under the procedures that are set up--they are bound to fail," the California Republican told INS Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell via a teleconference call from Washington.

"There is a persistent misunderstanding on the part of the INS on what is required," Wilson said as growers gathered at an INS-sponsored conference in Irvine listened in.

But Dolores Huerta, first vice president of the United Farm Workers of America, accused the growers of creating a scare to ensure cheap labor and said 14% farm worker unemployment was common in some areas.

'Media Pressure'

"It's all just a scam," said Huerta, who also addressed the meeting. "We're asking the INS not to succumb to the media pressure that the growers are creating."

Moreover, Ezell and other INS officials chided some growers for not actively recruiting or participating in the legalization program. "The growers have been so hooked on the opiate of illegal workers for so long they don't want the cure," Ezell said.

Wilson said he had asked White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker to intercede with the INS and the State Department to make it easier for Mexican farm workers to cross the border. The senator proposed a 90-day work permit that would allow Mexican workers, who qualify for amnesty, to apply for legalization while working the harvest. Ezell said he would relay this and other proposals put forth by Wilson and the farmers to INS Commissioner Alan Nelson.

The Irvine conference, which attracted about 200 grower representatives, was called by Ezell to address the agricultural industry's fears that an estimated 30% decrease in the California migrant worker pool threatens this year's harvest. The problem was dramatized by crops rotting in the Northwest, and there have been scattered reports of such losses in California.

Growers' organizations argued that INS and State Department policies have trapped about 50,000 eligible workers below the border.

Under the amnesty law, agricultural workers are eligible for legalization if they worked for 90 days in a perishable crop before May 1, 1986. The law also includes a guest worker program, which allows growers to import foreign contract labor in the face of a labor shortage.

Ezell, who dismissed the growers' "Chicken Little" fears of a shortage as premature, suggested that they apply for help under the guest worker, or H-2A, program. He also complained that they were not doing all they could to help implement the amnesty program. Since June 1, when the agricultural worker's provision went into effect, there have been no H-2A applications, according to the INS.

Lobbied for Reform

Ezell said the growers, who lobbied for immigration reform, do not want to pay the higher wages or benefits workers would receive under either program.

But Wilson told Ezell that the H-2A program is too complex to be of any immediate help. The heart of the harvest season falls between July and August, and it is unlikely the cumbersome program could be implemented by then, he said.

In implementing the law, the INS ruled that workers who were in Mexico on May 1 or after must apply for amnesty in their own country. Moreover, all amnesty applicants in Mexico must apply at the Mexico City Consulate, 1,800 miles from the border. Growers contend that a resulting bottleneck, plus confusion over the law, has discouraged Mexican workers from coming here.

Michael Stuart, vice president of the Western Growers Assn., suggested that the INS drop the May 1 cutoff point, open consulates near the border and allow amnesty-eligible workers to enter the United States and apply for legalization.

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