Dire predictions that the new federal immigration law would trigger a farm labor shortage and leave California's perishable fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields have failed to come true, according to a study by a UC Davis researcher.
Agricultural economist Philip Martin said that of 139 farms across the state he recently surveyed, only six reported actual crop losses, while others had only spot labor shortages attributable to the law.
Enforced for the first time this summer, sanctions against employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens are generally credited with having caused a small decline in the number of illegal job-seekers entering the United States.
In May and June, when farmers found fewer applicants lining up for field work, some growers voiced their alarm to the federal government, which responded by loosening restrictions at some border crossings and by a low-key campaign to promote a worker-legalization program within Mexico.
"Farmers have a natural tendency to overestimate the number (of workers) that they are going to need," Martin said. He said he tried to compensate for this bias in his study by also asking farmers if they had suffered any actual losses.
"A lot of farmers said that yes, (the immigration law) was affecting their farms, but very few lost crops because of it. Many more of them said their neighbors lost crops," Martin said.
Martin said that in the past, too many workers would cross into the United States each year for the number of jobs available.
The smaller flow of workers in 1987 was just "a reduction in the normal surplus," Martin said. "Some farmers took that to be an indication of shortage."
Martin said growers also reported that about 40% of their workers were undocumented aliens, a much smaller proportion than he had expected to find.
"It calls into question the whole idea that farmers need a supplemental work force," Martin said.
John Belluardo, a spokesman for the western region of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that data collected by his agency also shows that "the farm labor shortage was a myth."
"We've always felt that if the farmers paid a legal wage with decent working conditions, the farmers would attract a legal work force," Belluardo said.
But the president of California's largest farm organization said the state's growers could still face a labor shortage sometime.
Worker Pool Unknown
Henry Voss, of the 100,000-member California Farm Bureau Assn., said: "It's a big unknown just what the potential pool (of workers) is. If we don't reach that potential pool, we can be pretty well assured that there will be labor shortage problems."
The future of that labor pool depends in large part on how many of California's estimated 150,000 illegal alien farm workers qualify for a special amnesty program before a November, 1988, deadline, Voss said.
To qualify for the amnesty, alien workers must have worked with perishable crops in this country for 90 days between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986.
Belluardo said that within the western region of the INS, which includes California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii, 104,371 applications for the special agricultural worker amnesty program had been received as of Nov. 30.