From FresnoBee.com, Robert Rodriguez, 7 Aug 2011.
As Congress debates a bill to crack down on undocumented immigrants, California farmers are angling for a way to bring foreign guest workers into the U.S., saying it may be the only way they can stay in business.
Farmers and agriculture leaders have been fretting for weeks over the Republican-sponsored bill, which would require them and other businesses to use E-Verify, a federal database used by employers to check an employee’s legal status.
The bill, introduced in June by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has resonated with congressional conservatives who say illegal immigrants take jobs from American workers at a time of high unemployment.
But farmers say they are caught in the middle. They can’t find documented workers willing to pick crops and tend livestock. Using E-Verify would make it difficult, if not impossible, to farm, they say.
“There is not another labor force out there for our industry other than the one we have now,” said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “And taking that away will create huge problems.”
Smith’s bill offers some concessions to agriculture. For example, it gives farmers three years to phase in E-Verify, rather than the two years most businesses would have. But agriculture industry leaders say that’s not enough.
Agriculture groups have been lobbying for an amendment to the Smith bill that would give them access to foreign guest workers on a temporary basis.
One member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, is drafting such an amendment.
Lungren said that he has “been through a number of different drafts” of his guest worker provision, and it remains a work in progress. In general, though, it would permit foreign guest workers to enter the United States legally for 10 months or so each year; they would have to return to their home country for two months or so each year in order to receive their full pay.
“E-Verify will not pass and become law unless it accommodates the legitimate needs of agriculture,” Lungren said.
If the guest-worker proposal can’t fly as an amendment to the E-Verify legislation, Lungren suggested he could offer it as a stand-alone bill.
Lungren’s bill could give farmers a stripped-down version of the current guest agricultural worker program, known as H-2A.
As part of that program, employers must advertise the available jobs to legal U.S. residents and prove that no one here will take them. Employers also must pay the guest workers a government-regulated wage and provide free housing and transportation.
But Valley farmers say that by the time they figure out how many workers they may need to harvest their crops, it’s too late to recruit them. They seldom use the program.
“H-2A is a disaster, and it doesn’t work for California farmers,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno. “That is why we need an alternative to E-Verify.”
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, said that while Lungren’s amendment is not the perfect solution, it is a step in the right direction.
Nassif and others in agriculture have been trying for years to pass a law that would provide legal protection for hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers already working in agriculture. In exchange, the workers would commit to working in agriculture for several years. But legislation seeking those changes has stalled in Congress.
Politically, the mandatory E-Verify legislation and any accompanying guestworker provision together face an uphill road. Though House members had once talked of passing it before the August recess began, other policy debates and ongoing negotiations soaked up all the time.
While there is a fair chance the Republican-controlled House eventually will take it up, since Smith leads the House Judiciary Committee, the Senate is slow to move in the best of times. Though 11 senators back a Senate version, Senate rules make it easy for a handful of lawmakers to block action — and immigration reform, in particular, has been stuck on hold for years.
Still, farm labor advocates say neither the Smith bill nor Lungren’s proposed amendment would benefit workers already in the country. “We need to provide the hundreds of thousands of workers who have been helping to build the agriculture economy with a way to gain legal status,” said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers union. “But if this bill goes through, it will only penalize the people that this industry has depended on, and it will throw them to the wayside.”
Kerman farmer Kuldip Kaleka does not want that to happen. He personally hires most of the nearly 100 workers for his 60 acres of peaches and 270 acres of raisin grapes. And he does his best to make sure the documents his employees provide him such as Social Security cards look valid.
“I do what the law says I am supposed to do when checking documents,” Kaleka said. “But I am not the police, and I can’t doubt someone’s honesty.”
Kaleka fears that if Smith’s bill passes and becomes law, it could lead to unscrupulous practices. “It might drive some people to start paying people in cash and not asking any questions,” Kaleka said. “And nobody wants that to happen.”