A Ventura County Latino group called on Congressman Elton Gallegly to change his vote on a controversial bill that would allow thousands of foreign laborers to temporarily work in the nation's fields, arguing that such legislation is unnecessary and exploitative.
But the Simi Valley Republican said such a bill would help farmers struggling with worker shortages, would protect workers by giving them temporary legal status and is superior to a current system that tacitly allows thousands of undocumented workers to toil without security.
Gallegly suggested opposition by the Ventura County chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens is prompted by its own agenda--to help undocumented immigrants gain legal status in this country.
"The only thing [activists] want is amnesty [for undocumented workers]," Gallegly said. "My major concern is that we have to protect American jobs and employees."
The league believes ranchers have been unable to prove there is any kind of worker shortage here and that ranchers are merely looking for cheap labor from Mexico, said Denis O'Leary, a spokesman for the organization.
"It will hurt all the groups already working in the fields," he said. "They will be quieted by a steady stream of government-sponsored, low-wage workers."
Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, called the league's stance a politically motivated attack on Gallegly, who is facing a strong Democratic competitor in his November reelection bid. O'Leary denied the accusation.
"He's not a bad politician. It's a bad piece of legislation," he said.
Estimates on the number of field workers in Ventura County vary between 17,000 and 30,000. As many as 70% could be undocumented, Laird said.
Ventura County ranchers say they, and the contractors who find the field laborers, are suffering and they cite instances of worker shortages around the state as a reason for easing restrictions.
"The contractors can't locate workers and there's more competition now between commodities," rancher Richard Pidduck said. "And they may start in ag, but if Taco Bell has an opening they may be gone."
Opponents of the system cite the relatively high unemployment rates of some agricultural counties in other parts of the state as evidence there is no economic need for such a program.
"That's a cynical ploy to maintain a surplus of labor," said Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the United Farm Workers. "They whine every year they can't find enough workers and every year they do just fine."
The state now does not use temporary foreign labor, even though the law allows for such use, because the requirements are cumbersome and time-consuming, Laird said. The new legislation would solve that problem, he added.
The bill working its way through the House would establish a national registry of domestic farm workers and simplify the application process for employers seeking foreign workers. An amendment, attached by Gallegly, would require some housing for workers.
Proponents of the system say it is better for immigrant workers because it offers protection under the law and is far different from the last widespread foreign farm labor program, the notorious Bracero program, which disappeared in the late 1960s. In that program, workers typically worked long hours with low pay, no benefits and under harsh conditions.
"That was almost 50 years ago," said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agriculture Assn., who cited the introduction of a variety of worker safety laws, the minimum wage and government watchdogs as proof this generation's field workers would be treated better.
But Grossman scoffed at that idea.
"We have some of the toughest laws in the country but no one's enforcing them," he said. "All the laws are ignored."