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California and the West

Growers Say U.S. Wrong, Labor Is in Short Supply

Agriculture: They contend that INS actions have cut into numbers of workers and that government efforts to provide replacements have proved inadequate.


If this is the future--and farmers everywhere tell him it is--then Mike Osumi does not like it one bit.

His beans are rotting on the vine. He can't find anyone to pick them. His cabbages molder in the sun. He has no workers to take them to market. Heck, Osumi can't even find a qualified tractor driver to plow under his unpicked crops.

"It's been a disaster," he says from his cell phone as he scrambles through his Tustin farm, trying to salvage what he can.

Osumi's woes began this fall when the Immigration and Naturalization Service started picking up his field hands and deporting them as illegal immigrants. His seasonal work force of 160 quickly shriveled to three.

Desperate for legal replacements, Osumi requested help from the local unemployment office. So far, it has sent him just 14 referrals. Only one has stuck with the work.

Osumi's plight resonates with growers across California who express frustration with a recent federal report concluding that the agricultural industry does not face a labor shortage--and won't in the foreseeable future.

Based on interviews and an analysis of labor statistics, the General Accounting Office found that farmers have an ample supply of foreign labor, including illegal immigrants. Should growers run short in the future, the report recommended hiring U.S. citizens forced off the welfare rolls. In sum, there's simply no need to import large numbers of workers when unemployment in the top agricultural counties is as much as double the national average, the report said.

Those conclusions have touched off a provocative debate, not only within the agricultural industry, but also among social workers and economists who wonder whether it's feasible--or indeed necessary--to shift welfare recipients into field jobs.

The debate starts with a stark reality: Agriculture as it is currently structured relies on illegal immigrants to do a lot of the dirty work.

Though growers like Osumi say they check each prospective hire's documents, they admit they are often conned by forgeries.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that up to 40% of agricultural workers across the country are illegal. Farm officials peg that figure in California at closer to 70%. If all those workers were to vanish--hauled off in an INS crackdown or kept away by a tougher Border Patrol--growers across the state would find themselves in the same fix as Osumi.

That's why they find the new federal report so baffling. In insisting that there will be no labor shortage in the future, the report assumes the INS will continue to let illegal workers do much of California's planting, picking and pruning.

Farmers say they can't afford to make that assumption. The INS is developing a computerized verification process to sniff out phony documents within minutes. Border patrols are getting ever tougher, and many growers assume that a crackdown on illegal field workers is inevitable.

"[What happens] down the road, that's the scary part," said Roy Gabriel, legislative director of the California Farm Bureau. "We're simply not going to wait for our crops to rot in the field."

To the bureau, the solution is simple: Bring more legal laborers into California as temporary "guest workers" who will spend a few months drying grapes into raisins or picking fresh peaches, then return to their native countries.

Current law allows guest workers to enter the United States for agricultural jobs only after the Department of Labor has certified that no workers are available domestically. California farmers want a new, more flexible program that will let them import workers when they feel they need them, not when the government declares a labor shortage.

But the federal report released last week concluded that such a program would not be necessary.

The report found that there are already too many field workers in the United States--an oversupply that depresses wages and drives unemployment rates as high as 20% to 30% in some agricultural counties. If farmers need more workers, the report suggested, why not hire off the unemployment rolls? Or why not reach out to welfare recipients, who are now being pushed ever harder to find jobs?

As Osumi's experience demonstrates, that's not always practical.

When he appealed to local churches, community groups and the unemployment office for laborers, Osumi got applicants who who had never set foot in fields, much less worked a day picking corn. Before he could even put them to work, he had to teach them such basics as the importance of good hygiene and the proper way to walk down a row without crushing plants.

Several of his recruits quit after just a few hours, unable to take the heat and the strain for pay that started at minimum wage, he said. Others gamely struggled through a few days, but he said they ended up creating more problems than they solved. With one group, for instance, Osumi had to chuck half the beans picked; the workers had not known to separate good beans from ones flecked with decay.

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