December 15, 2000

Farmers welcome plan to boost work force

By Reed Fujii
Stockton Record

December 6 - Farm-worker groups and the agricultural industry both support compromise U.S. legislation that could increase the farming work force by granting legal status to many undocumented workers and expanding a visa program to allow in additional foreign workers.

But despite that unusual unanimity, uncertainty over the presidential election and other obstacles may make passage unlikely before the current lame-duck session of Congress elapses, officials said.

"It will make a big difference for California agriculture," said Heather Flower, spokeswoman for the Irvine-based Western Growers Association, which helped craft the pending legislation.

Farmers statewide have struggled with a chronic shortage of farm workers, while industry profits dwindle amid record low prices for a wide variety of commodities. There is an existing guest-worker program that grants temporary visas to foreign farm workers.

However, Flower said by telephone Tuesday: "It's nothing in California just because it's not been a workable, practical solution."

The existing program takes a great deal of time, paperwork and expenses for farmers, she said, while the compromise would cut through the red tape, ease the requirement for providing foreign-worker housing and freeze wage rates. In addition, it would grant legal status to undocumented farm workers already working in the United States and give them a chance to earn permanent residency.

"It's going to be tough for anything to be passed out of this session of Congress, given the way everything is up in the air right now," said Doug Heye, spokesman for Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy. "I think it's overly optimistic to look for major movement on any legislation besides the budget."

Pombo authored a bill that would have extended the visa program for agriculture, saying it would help provide a stable work force for Central Valley farmers, provide jobs and ensure consumers a supply of food. His bill, however, drew opposition from farm-worker groups, which feared a flood of cheap, foreign labor.

Still, nearly everyone agrees that U.S. agriculture is heavily dependent on foreign workers who have immigrated illegally — a million or more by some
estimates — putting farmers in the dilemma of either breaking the law by hiring such workers or letting their crops rot in the field.

"We could not harvest our crops without foreign workers," said Jack King, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, by telephone from Sparks, Nev., where the group is holding its annual meeting. "Dealing with the immigration issue is important to us, period. We want a better system. We want somehow to move away from the status quo."

But King said there is only uncertainty over the fate of the legislation in Washington. The farm-labor legislation is one of numerous issues that could be attached to the final major appropriations bill in Congress; its fate and its final form still remain undecided.

"There's no real sense at all at what's going to be included in a final package," King said Tuesday.

Marc Grossman, with the Sacramento legislative office of the United Farm Workers union, agreed.

"With the uncertainty of the election outcome, who knows what will happen in Congress now?" he asked.

Stockton migrant-worker organizer Luis Magana would like to know. He's anxious to see what policies might be applied to farm workers already in the United States illegally.

"A lot of farm workers are waiting in the shadows for the new amnesty," he said.

As illegal residents, they have few rights even though many have lived and worked in this country for a decade or longer, Magana said. Because of their fear of deportation, they are often exploited, and may have a hard time finding decent housing, health care and schooling for themselves and their children.

"This is very hard."

"We're creating a double standard here," King complained, noting that Congress earlier this year approved a visa program — with none of the restrictions imposed on farm workers — for the high-tech industry aimed at bringing in 195,000 workers.

"We acknowledge the need for these workers in our high-tech industry, but we're unwilling to acknowledge the need for workers in our agricultural industry," he said.

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