From WatchSonomaCounty.com, Martin Espinoza, The Press Democrat, 6 Aug 2011.
[Sonoma County, CA] — A Republican proposal in Congress to require all employers to electronically verify the legal immigration status of workers is sending chills through the North Coast farm industry, which relies heavily on both legal and illegal immigrants.
Industry leaders say the effect of mandating the federal program known as E-Verify without ensuring a more streamlined process for legally hiring skilled farmworkers from Mexico would cripple Sonoma County agriculture.
“It would be devastating to the economy of Sonoma County,” said Steve Dutton, a wine-grape grower and a member of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Dutton said the federal government’s current H-2A program, which allows U.S. employers to use foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs that cannot be filled by U.S. workers, is far too cumbersome, bureaucratic and time consuming. It would not withstand the employment demand that would result from making E-Verify mandatory.
“They cannot have an E-Verify program go into effect without an ag-jobs program,” he said. “There needs to be a program to bring guys here from Mexico to work in ag-related jobs.”
Currently a voluntary Web-based program, E-Verify allows employers to check the eligibility of newly hired employees by cross-checking Social Security numbers and alien identification numbers using Social Security and Department of Homeland Security records. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, wants to make it a mandatory program.
According to the latest E-Verify data, about 214 employers in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties use the voluntary verification system. The companies include retail businesses, government and professional services. Few agricultural employers are using the system.
Smith has said that expanding E-Verify would create more job opportunities for 26 million Americans who are unemployed. In a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, the congressman said there are about 7 million immigrants working in the U.S. illegally.
“It is inexcusable that Americans and legal workers have to compete with illegal immigrants for scarce jobs,” Smith wrote.
But some say the equation is not that simple, and many of the job openings suddenly created, particularly farm work, would simply go unfilled.
“I think it’s not a given that the unemployment ranks would be affected much,” said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
“It’s hard work. You’re out there all day; it can be hot and the work is tedious,” he said. “It’s definitely physical labor … not everybody is willing to do that.”
Frey said local farmers have expressed concern about the proposal.
Casimiro Alvarez, regional director of the United Farm Workers, estimated about 70 percent of Sonoma County’s agriculture workers are undocumented. He said the estimate is based on anecdotal and unofficial surveys of work sites he visits and that for every 20 workers, only a handful are working legally.
Last year, Sonoma County’s farm-labor workforce peaked at 6,500 in September, dropping to 4,900 in November, according to estimates by the state Employment Development Department. In 2009, the total number of farm jobs in the county went from a peak of 7,400 in October to 4,700 in November.
The 2010 Sonoma County crop report, issued by the county agriculture commissioner, put the total value of farm crops at $594 million, with the wine-grape crop valued at more than $390 million.
“The wine industry alone contributes $10 to $12 billion to the local economy,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the county Farm Bureau, adding that the county’s farm industries also include dairy and equine operations. “There’s a lot of jobs out there that rely on an important workforce,” he said.
A federal agriculture jobs bill that is supported by both the UFW and local farmers is stalled in Congress. Smith has promised to either streamline the H-2A program or propose a new guest-worker program. Also, Smith’s proposal would establish a three-year grace period for growers.
But such promises ring hollow to those who have been waiting years for Congress to engage in a policy overhaul to create a legal immigrant work force.
Alvarez said the issue of immigrant labor is a highly charged and politicized topic and many growers are unwilling to speak out for fear of the inevitable anti-immigrant backlash.
Robert Eyler, director of Sonoma State University’s Regional Center for Economic Analysis, said local farmers compete in the global market and face competition from nations that themselves use immigrant labor.
But he said it’s in the U.S. that people are more worried about the legal status of farmworkers “than in countries like Chile or Argentina.”
Dutton, whose family farms more than 1,000 acres of vineyards in west Sonoma County, said his business uses the H-2A avenue to hire 40 to 45 farmworkers a year. The current process under the Obama administration, he said, is inefficient.
He said he must go to the U.S.-Mexican border to petition for each worker as well as advertise the position in three states to ensure potential American workers are not overlooked.
“Once the guys get visas, we have to provide transportation to get them up here, free housing; we have to guarantee they’re going to work three-quarters of the hours we offer, and if for some reason they don’t work that much, we have to pay them for the hours,” he said.
He goes through the cumbersome process because he wants to ensure “we have guys here legally, that we have a legal workforce.”
Dutton said the issue of how to provide a stable and reliable workforce for agriculture has become mired in politics.
“The whole issue has been politicized to the point where agriculture and our food supply will be collateral damage from a poor political process,” he said.