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Lack of immigration reform threatens California farmers

Growers have difficulty fielding adequate crews to harvest crops; Washington has a shot this year at providing meaningful relief.

February 20, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Day laborers pick broccoli in the Salinas Valley.
Day laborers pick broccoli in the Salinas Valley. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Except for illegal immigrants, no group has more at stake in the national fight over immigration reform than California farmers.

"It doesn't pay to plant a product if you can't harvest it," notes Mark Teixeira of Santa Maria, who says he had to let 22 acres of vegetables rot last year because he couldn't find enough field hands to gather the crop. "That hurts."

As security has tightened along the California-Mexican border, the flow of illegal immigrant labor into the nation's most productive agriculture state has slowed significantly, farm interests say.

"It's very difficult to find crews compared to three or four years ago," reports Greg Wegis, a fifth-generation Kern County farmer who grows cherries, almonds, pistachios and tomatoes, among other crops.

Last year, Wegis had to cancel a cherry pick for lack of labor. "It cost me several thousand dollars."

"Migrant workers are moving to other states that are friendlier and where there's less likelihood of getting harassed and deported," he says.

"Obviously [the feds] are doing a better job at the border. Which is great. But it definitely is putting the squeeze on our industry."

Any time some demagogic politician bellows about rounding up all the illegal immigrants and shipping them back to their own country, it sends chills up farmers' spines.

Roughly two-thirds of the state's crop workers "are not properly documented," says Rayne Pegg, who heads the federal policy division of the California Farm Bureau.

"I'm not proud to say I hire illegal aliens," says Teixeira, whose family has been farming for five generations. "Everyone has to show 'documentation.' But I don't work for [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Bottom line, if I have to verify everyone, I'm not going to be able to harvest my crop."

One federal program designed to allow temporary entry of foreign agriculture workers — called H-2A — fails in California because "it's fraught with bureaucratic nightmares," Pegg says. "The federal government doesn't act timely enough for picking and harvesting."

At the harvest peak last September, California had 453,000 agriculture workers, according to the state Employment Development Department. They averaged about $13 per hour. Most pay is based on a work crew's production.

Some farmers, like Teixeira, pay by the hour — $9 in his case, $1 over the state minimum wage. "We also provide health insurance and a 401(k)," he says. And unlike San Joaquin Valley farmers, Teixeira offers a great climate along the ocean. But he still can't find enough hands for his 800 acres.

"Not just any bozo off the street can come in and harvest produce," he says, noting there's a special skill to, for example, cutting lettuce just right.

"Americans won't take these jobs," asserts Dave Puglia, senior vice president of the Western Growers Assn. "Not even the farmworkers raise their own children to take these jobs. It's hard work. And it's not unskilled labor."

California growers need a more reliable source of labor — one they believe would come from immigration reform. Workers would be here legally, able to move freely from farm to farm and able to cross back and forth across the border without worrying about being jumped by some federal agent.

There are an estimated 2.6 million illegal immigrants living in California, nearly one-fourth of the nation's 11 million total. They represent roughly 7% of the state's population. The vast majority — about 1.8 million — are employed.

A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 72% of likely voters believe that illegal immigrants who have worked in this country for at least two years should be allowed "to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status." Only 25% think "they should be deported back to their native country."

Also, 54% feel that immigrants benefit California "because of their hard work and job skills." Conversely, 39% call them a burden "because they use public services."

Ironically, 60% of Republican voters consider immigrants a burden and only 33% see them as a benefit. That's their long-held view. But many big growers are Republican.

And that's ultra ironic because, nationally, it has been GOP politicians — often representing farm belts — who have blocked and politicized immigration reform.

California farmers "are all over their legislators about not helping them," says Tom Nassif, president and chief executive of the Western Growers Assn. "But they don't punish their legislators for not helping them. They should make it clear that they need their support."

In November, Latino voters made it clear to Republican politicians — including presidential candidate Mitt Romney — that they didn't appreciate their immigration views. And that's why farm groups now see the best opportunity in many years for reform.

"I've said, 'Look folks, it's time to deal with this,'" Nassif says.

After Romney made his dumb, right-wing-pandering comment in a debate about the need for illegal immigrants to "self-deport," Nassif was brought in as one of the candidate's agriculture advisors.

"I told him he was going to be in trouble with Latinos if he didn't do something," Nassif recalls. "I advised him to do something about providing a legal workforce. But he felt better served by being more conservative."

We'll soon see whether Republican politicians have learned the political lesson.

If President Obama and Congress "don't come up with something in the next couple of months, the prospects for this year are not very good," says Pegg, who's wired into negotiations. "We'll be getting into the next election season."

There's momentum now. The issue is ripe for harvest.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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