Leaving the fields: immigration policy takes a toll at harvest time

A group of Bill Middleton’s field workers uproot weeds in a field of asparagus shoots in Burbank.

A group of Bill Middleton’s field workers uproot weeds in a field of asparagus shoots in Burbank. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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Even after the end of asparagus season, farmer Bill Middleton still had a few workers left in his fields. He watched four of them weed around young plants he will later sell to a nursery.

It was good year for him, he said, largely because it was the first in the past few where he didn’t have to leave fields uncut for lack of workers to help with the harvest.

But it’s a statement that has become increasingly rare as farmers all over the country have reported accelerating labor shortages in recent years.

While Eastern Washington growers have fared better so far this year, likely because weather damage to cherries freed up workers for asparagus and onions, local farmers know having enough workers isn’t likely to become a pattern.

“Next year when they have a banner cherry year, we could be in for more of a shortage,” said Middleton, the Washington Asparagus Commission board chairman.

Images of unpicked crops rotting in fields have become a staple in a national debate about immigration and farm labor. Growers say worker shortages are due to increased border controls and internal security that make it harder for unauthorized immigrants to come to and live in the U.S.

Groups like the United Farm Workers agree these factors contribute, but also point to declining wage rates in agriculture as a factor limiting worker availability.

Both sides say an immigration reform bill would help solve many of the issues facing farm labor by legalizing many of the workers who are already here and providing a viable guest worker program to meet future labor needs.

“We as farmers need to be able to have a legal and stable work force,” said Mike Gemplar, executive director of the Washington Grower’s League, which helps agricultural employers with labor issues.


Leaving in droves

Data from the Department of Labor’s annual National Agricultural Workers Survey suggests that about three-quarters of seasonal and migrant workers are foreign-born, and Mexico is by far where most of them call home.

Net migration from Mexico to the U.S., however, fell to zero in 2012, following a five-year period of sharp decline, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Some of this is due to increased border security, which has made it more difficult to enter the country illegally. Low wages, difficult working conditions and a fear of persecution in the U.S. have also driven some workers to return to their native countries.

Mariela Rosas, who runs after-school programs for children at Walla Walla’s Valle Lindo, formerly known as the Farm Labor Homes, said she knows of three families who have gone back to Mexico recently after living and working in the U.S. for years.

“We’re tired of working here. They don’t pay us enough to live here,” said Placia, a farmworker who declined to give her last name due to her immigration status. She said her wages have gone up about 15 cents per hour over the past few years — not enough to keep pace with rising rent.

Local growers said they’ve still faced shortages, even after raising wages, and that experienced workers are able to earn above minimum wage at the piece rates they pay.

But Gemplar agreed that workers leaving the country was a problem, one he said was caused by an increase in laws requiring identification and verified paperwork across the country. Together, these policies have created a “technological noose,” making it harder and harder to live in the U.S. illegally.

“It all adds up. It’s no longer worthwhile for them to stay here and they go back to their home country,” he said.


Failures of 1986 reform

With workers leaving and fewer migrants coming to replace them, growers face a shortage that they fear will increase without changes in immigration policy. Currently, unskilled workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries can apply for a visa only if they have a close family member who is a legal permanent resident or citizen of the U.S., and the wait for those visas is almost 20 years for Mexican nationals.

“I’ve had numerous calls from agricultural employers saying, ‘I have this great guy. He’s worked with me for 14 years. I just need to get him legal. What do I do?’ There is no avenue. He would need a family member (already here),” said Walla Walla immigration attorney Wendy Hernandez.

A reform measure that provided legal status for workers would ease some of these concerns. Workers without papers sometimes fear traveling too far from where they live to look for jobs, because they don’t want to encounter law enforcement, and Rosas said they tend to prefer finding jobs through people they already know to ensure their own safety.

Legal status would give workers freedom to seek work farther from home, but in the long term, it may also lead to people leaving agriculture altogether.

“All that does is it takes those people and it allows them to train and move up the ladder to better jobs,” said Michael Locati, who grows onions and some asparagus in the Walla Walla Valley.

The impacts of the last comprehensive U.S. immigration reform bill in 1986 are debated, but it’s estimated that a significant majority of farm workers who applied for legal status eventually moved out of farm work and into other industries, like construction.

The net result was that a new wave of workers without documents came across the border to fill open jobs in agriculture.

Like many growers, Locati said legalization would be good for workers, but at best, it’s a short-term solution, because the children of farm workers also tend to move out of agriculture and into other industries.


Needs remain

If a law resembling the Senate’s immigration reform bill were to pass, it’s unlikely that a new wave of immigrants would be able to take the place of legalized workers.

The current bill requires a nationwide e-verify system to check documents, which Gemplar said would make it nearly impossible for workers to use false documents to get jobs in agriculture.

With the drop off in illegal border crossings, growers would have to turn to domestic labor or guest worker visas to meet their needs.

And domestic workers, many growers say, don’t have the skills required to do the job.

“These people have skills,” said Middleton, gesturing to men bent over hoeing a row of asparagus in temperatures approaching triple digits. “Even asparagus harvesting requires some skills. You can’t just walk out there and start harvesting asparagus.”

Roger Bairstow, a board member for Broetje Orchards in Walla Walla County, said the company’s attempts to hire domestic workers have been largely unsuccessful, as people quickly learn they aren’t able to pick fruit without bruising it or keep up with the pace set by seasoned farm workers.

“In Washington D.C. you hear a lot about the skilled/unskilled immigration proposals. From our perspective, they’re all skilled, just doing different work for different industries,” he said.

Gemplar acknowledged that domestic workers could be persuaded to do field work, but he estimated it would take wages of $25 of $30 per hour.

“I think there’s a price at which people in the U.S. will go out and do field work (in) large numbers, but it’s higher than farmers are able to pay, so we’re largely reliant on the foreign work force,” he said.


Burdensome rules

Employers describe the current guest worker system as too burdensome, with requirements the employer advertise jobs locally, recruit workers in their home countries, pay for worker transportation to and from their country of origin and provide housing.

“It’s basically set up to fail unless you’re a big operation,” said Locati.

Even for Broetje, which employs 1,200 people year-round and adds up to 1,000 more temporary workers during apple harvest season, the existing program isn’t feasible.

Because orchards often have a window of only a few weeks to harvest most of their crop, by the time the company knows it is going to have a labor shortage it’s often too late to begin recruiting and transporting workers from Mexico.

The current program also operates on a contract basis, meaning an employee can work for an employer only while in the country, something many say puts workers in a vulnerable position.

The Senate’s reform bill has a similar contract system, but also contains an at-will guest worker program that provides more flexibility and doesn’t limit workers to a single employer.

Bairstow said now is the time for people concerned about the future of agriculture to read up on immigration reform and contact their representatives.

“We need to come to a recognition that agriculture needs people to pick its crops,” he said. “Whether you’re pro-immigrant to anti-immigrant, neither the legal nor the illegal system for immigration is working.”

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

Comments

jennybuggs 9 months ago

"Gemplar acknowledged that domestic workers could be persuaded to do field work, but he estimated it would take wages of $25 of $30 per hour."
That's bullsh!t. I have a masters and I don't even make $25 an hour. Most people in the universe don't make that kind of money. People will pick for alot less. People will do most jobs for less. The problem is that it's seasonal work with no benefits. It's hard to build a life on that kind of on again off again work, esp if the crop fails that year - then you are doubly screwed (as a worker - the farmers themselves have crop insurance). A domestic worker is also a bit intimidated when coming into a job where 95% of your coworkers are guest workers that only speak Spanish.

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