October 3, 2006


Border Security, Job Market Leave Farms Short of Workers: Growers Frustrated by Delay in Agriculture Legislation (Sonya Geis, 10/04/06, Washington Post)

As the border tightens, Mexican workers who once spent part of each year in American fields without a work permit fear that if they go back to Mexico, they will be trapped behind the border, farmers say. Instead, they stay in the United States, taking year-round jobs that pay more and are less backbreaking than farm work, such as cleaning hotels or working in construction in cities on the Gulf Coast devastated by last year's hurricanes.

"Frequently you hear, especially from California, complaints about construction companies actually recruiting workers from the sides of the fields," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. Other industries that depend on immigrant labor, such as landscaping and construction, "are also concerned about the overall availability of labor given demographic trends," he said, adding: "But agriculture is the warning sign, if you will, of structural changes in the economy."

The problem is now reaching crisis proportions, food growers say. As much as 30 percent of the year's pear crop was lost in Northern California, growers estimate. More than one-third of Florida's Valencia orange crop went unharvested, Regelbrugge said. In New York, apples are rotting on the trees, because workers who once picked the fruit have fled frequent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, said Maureen Marshall, an apple grower in Elba.

Michael Keegan, a spokesman for the federal agency, said he could not confirm any specific targets for raids. But he said it now takes a more proactive approach to work-site enforcement, seeking to build criminal cases against employers instead of issuing fines. The agency focuses work-site raids on "critical infrastructure," he said, such as airports and chemical plants, including food processing facilities.

Critics say increased wages would keep workers in the fields. Growers contend that their wages, often minimum wage plus a piece rate, are as high as they can pay and still remain profitable. Ricchiuti echoed many growers when he said local people "don't want to do the work at any price."

Fortunately for these job-seekers, natives won't do the construction work either.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2006 11:57 PM
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