IRVINE, Calif. -- After facing significant labor shortages during this winter's harvest, Southwestern growers have renewed their calls for immigration labor reform.
Fearing the threat of terrorist infiltration through the porous U.S.-Mexican border, the government last year launched the Arizona Border Control Initiative. The initiative raised the number of arrests of illegal immigrants in the region by a third, to almost 100,000, according to published reports. Growers in Arizona's Yuma Valley, however, said stricter immigration controls during the five months when the region produces most of the country's lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and other leafy vegetables caused them to lose about one third of the 45,000 workers they typically need for harvest.
The situation this year did not produce a shortage or significant spike in the wholesale or retail price of the produce. Representatives from Western Growers, the association representing 3,000 growers in the region, declined to speculate on how future labor shortages might affect future supplies or prices.
Still, the shortage highlighted a problem the agriculture industry shares with many others in the United States: a dependence on undocumented workers to fill thousands of labor-intensive jobs each year. Out of about 10 million undocumented laborers in this country, 900,000 are crop workers who perform seasonal tasks, such as picking fruit and harvesting lettuce, said the Department of Labor.
"It is time for the country to acknowledge that this foreign workforce is part of the national labor supply," said Tim Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers. "It is clear in the agriculture industry that there is a need for a legal, foreign workforce. We are not in support of illegal immigration."
Western Growers, among other groups, is throwing its support behind the recent reintroduction of the Agricultural Job, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS), proposed by Senators Larry Craig (R-ID) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) with 60 co-sponsors. The bipartisan bill would grant permanent residency to about half a million foreign workers currently in the United States who commit to continue working in agriculture.
"It's a bi-partisan bill that has a unique confluence of interest and support from growers, trade associations, and even the United Farm Workers Union," explained Chelling.
During his 2005 State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a different system that would match U.S. employers with foreign workers, offering them three-year temporary work permits for jobs that U.S. citizens cannot be found to fill. Unlike AgJOBS, the program would not require the permit holders to remain employed in the agriculture sector, but would allow them to switch jobs and lines of work prior to the expiration of their permit.
Chelling contended that immigration reform would have a positive impact on the food industry. A more stable workforce of harvesters would ensure stability of supply.
Furthermore, additional training of that workforce would improve food safety. Many also argue that a more open worker system would eventually encourage foreign laborers to obtain better documentation, which in turn would help the government keep better watch over who is entering the country.