From SantaCruzSentinel.com, Jason Hoppin, 25 Apr 2011.
[Santa Cruz, CA] — Farmers are growing increasingly concerned about a federal employment verification program that could have vast implications for local agriculture, Santa Cruz County’s top industry.
Some Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have called for expanding a Department of Homeland Security program known as e-Verify, which allows employers to immediately check, electronically, a worker’s employment status against federal immigration databases.
But many speculate that the program – if implemented without Congress taking up the politically sensitive task of providing a path to citizenship for immigrant workers – would effectively wipe out the county’s, the state’s and the nation’s agricultural work force.
“To say that we’re going to use e-Verify without giving you a legal means to citizenship, the message there is, ‘We want (consumers) to buy foreign food,'” said Thomas Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Irvine-based Western Growers, adding that U.S. agriculture “couldn’t survive.”
United Farm Workers spokeswoman Maria Machuca shares a similar assessment.
“If you deport all those farm workers, it’s basically the collapse of the agricultural industry,” she said.
During a hearing of the House Government Oversight Committee held last week in Salinas, growers aired longstanding complaints about burdensome regulations to Rep. Darrell Issa, a Vista Republican who chairs the committee, and Rep. Sam Farr, a Carmel Democrat. The meeting included several local agricultural groups, who also voiced concern about e-Verify.
“It’s just going to cause some problems,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.
In operation for several years, e-Verify is still voluntary for most employers. But it is up for reauthorization next year, and with Republicans recently retaking control of the House, some are calling for it to be expanded, including House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican.
Smith has been a vocal opponent of illegal immigration, disputing that U.S. citizens aren’t interested in working the fields. He cites figures that 50 percent of agricultural workers are here legally – a figure many dispute.
“Statements that Americans are not willing to do these jobs demean the hardworking Americans who actually do this work on a daily basis,” Smith said at a January hearing. “Citizens and legal immigrants should not be forced to compete with illegal workers for jobs.”
Some say the percentage of undocumented agricultural workers is closer to 80 percent. And while employers are required to file employment status forms and check two pieces of employee identification, it is widely acknowledged that those papers are frequently borrowed from others or forged – a fact that Nassif said everyone understands but no one will do anything about.
“Why a government would prefer that we hire them illegally is beyond my conception,” Nassif said.
An alternative guest worker program known as H2-A is fraught with problems and delays, growers say. Since crop readiness changes from year to year, a program heavy on paperwork and restrictions, such as a requirement to provide foreign workers with housing, is not workable in the agricultural industry, they say.
Grower groups, including the Strawberry Commission and Western Growers, as well as the United Farm Workers and many California lawmakers, including Farr and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have thrown their support behind a slate of immigration reforms known as the AgJOBS Bill.
The bill allows workers who’ve already worked the fields to pay a fine in exchange for a path to citizenship. They would have to continue to work the fields for a period of time, and would be required to start learning English.
As long as AgJOBS passes, many growers have no specific concern with e-Verify – just on its implications for the agricultural work force. But AgJOBS isn’t currently under consideration in Washington, D.C.
“We’re always optimistic and we know that sometimes things can change,” Machuca said. “We know legislation takes some time before people realize that it’s the right thing to do.”