From TheMonitor.com, “Slim Pickings: Texas lawmakers hope bills yield patch for farm-labor gap” by Jared Janes, 20 Mar 2011.
MISSION [TX] — Most of the farm workers who harvest and process citrus for South Tex Organics are familiar faces who return each growing season to provide a reliable labor force.
At the peak of the season, South Tex Organics, the largest organic citrus and vegetable grower in the state, has up to 80 workers picking in fields scattered across the Rio Grande Valley or processing the food sent to retail shelves from the Mission-based packing shed, said Dennis Holbrook, who established the company in 1984.
Back then, rapid growth in the sale of organic food was just beginning. But as South Tex Organics expanded to meet the demands of his distributors, Holbrook has found it harder and harder to expand his labor force beyond those reliable few.
Fearing a continued shortage of farm workers, Holbrook and other Texas farmers worked with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to establish a pilot program allowing them to hire laborers from Mexico. But in the polarizing debate on immigration reform, that guest worker program didn’t get far.
While he doubts two bills filed by state legislators to introduce a similar program in Texas will pass muster, Holbrook is hopeful the discussions will at least generate interest in addressing shortages of hired labor in Texas agriculture.
“The bottom line when it comes to the available workforce is that most people who live in this country don’t want to work in the fields,” Holbrook said. “There is just always a shortage of labor because these are jobs that a lot of people don’t want to do.”
State Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, filed legislation this month to create the Texas Commission on Immigration and Migration to explore the implementation of a guest worker program here. And state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, sponsored a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to pay for cards that allow them to work for eight years.
If passed, the bills are likely to face a constitutional challenge over whether a state can establish such programs. But Peña said the federal government’s unwillingness to address immigration forces states to take up the issue under increasing public demand.
“Many Texans say they don’t want illegal immigrants here, but they often willingly allow them to baby-sit their children, take care of their horses and eat food picked and prepared by them,” he said. “If we really want to confront the immigration issue, we have to first fill a need for workers for the business community.”
GUEST WORKER BILLS
Peña modeled his legislation after an immigration package passed by both chambers of Utah’s Republican-controlled legislature. Utah’s legislation — in a departure from the hard-line measures adopted by Arizona — combines tougher enforcement with ways to grant legal status to illegal immigrants already here.
Utah’s legislation takes a “pragmatic view” by realizing immigration can’t be solved purely by passing punitive measures, said Peña, who contends he can offer reasonable solutions as a Hispanic Republican who represents a border community with strong relationships with Mexico.
Peña’s House Bill 2757 would explore the possibility of creating a guest worker program crafted under current federal worker visa guidelines. The bill grants authority to Gov. Rick Perry to partner with a Mexican state to qualify potential workers, who would then be allowed to legally work in the United States in a controlled system.
The legislation also establishes a commission consisting of 26 members — including representatives of statewide elected officials, state legislators and the general public — who set guidelines on the use of migrant workers in the state. Because the commission can also make other legislative recommendations, Peña said, it’s a starting point to gradually address other aspects of illegal immigration.
But Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director for La Union del Pueblo Entero, said Peña’s legislation is unlikely to pass the federal government’s scrutiny and fails to go far enough in reforming the immigration system.
“A guest worker program will do nothing about people that are already here without status,” said Valdez-Cox, who heads the South Texas office for the community organizing arm of the United Farm Workers. “This immigration system needs to be reformed, but it needs to be done comprehensively by the federal government.”
Valdez-Cox compared Peña’s legislation to the Bracero (manual laborer) Program, a diplomatic agreement between the United States and Mexico that allowed migrant Mexican laborers to work in this country between 1942 and 1964. The Bracero Program frequently was blamed for undercutting domestic wages for farm workers, and its expiration led to an expansion of the labor movement under César Chávez.
To be successful, a guest worker program will require thoughtful considerations on worker protections, wage rates and the mechanics of where and when the immigrants could work, said Ray Prewett, the president of Texas Citrus Mutual. But a guest worker program could be a valuable tool to address a labor shortage in the fruit and vegetable industry in South Texas.
A 2008 Texas A&M study found that labor shortages, aging workers and high employee turnover were affecting Texas farmers negatively, with more than half anticipating a labor shortage that year. The study found 77 percent of employers reduced the scope of their business because of a lack of employees.
With state and federal lawmakers looking to expand the use of E-verify, a tool that identifies workers who have fraudulent documents, farming operations could lose part of their existing workforces, Prewett said. With few American workers willing to do backbreaking farm labor, only the downsizing of Valley farming operations has prevented serious shortages.
“If there is a crackdown on not allowing people to work who have had these false documents, we need a legal avenue to find the workers that are required,” Prewett said. “If we don’t have the labor source, we will see crops rotting in the field by next spring.”
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4424.