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'Silent raids' and E-Verify immigration enforcement are destroying US farms

Enforcement-only immigration policies will further devastate immigrant communities, ravage labor-intensive agriculture, and take away countless jobs beyond the farm sector. If elected officials want US fruit and vegetable farms to survive, they need to implement smarter immigration reform.

By Daniel Altschuler / June 2, 2011



Amherst, Mass.

Last week, the Supreme Court provided yet another sign that the drumbeat of immigration enforcement continues unabated. And with the nation on the cusp of summer, nowhere is the harmful impact of enforcement-only policies more evident than on America’s fruit and vegetable farms.

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Other states may follow in Arizona’s footsteps after the Supreme Court upheld an earlier Arizona law that requires businesses to use "E-Verify" and gives the state the right to suspend or rescind licenses from any business that knowingly hires undocumented people.

And despite President Obama’s lofty rhetoric on thoughtful immigration reform in El Paso in May, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives also appears to be marching inexorably toward passing a mandatory E-Verify bill. Such a law would mandate that all employers check new hires’ work authorizations against a federal database that is still being piloted.

This latest enforcement-only legislation – mandatory E-Verify – will probably pass the House and other state legislatures this year. Already, Georgia included a mandatory E-Verify provision in the Arizona SB 1070 copycat bill it passed earlier last month. But these enforcement-only policies will further devastate immigrant communities and ravage labor-intensive agriculture.

The central economic question for US legislators: Should our country continue to produce fruits and vegetables? If so, our representatives need to protect experienced farmworkers who are already here and ensure that growers can hire immigrant laborers to do the seasonal farm-work that Americans don’t want to do.

The problem with enforcement-only

Since Mr. Obama took office, however, policy has not moved in that direction. Under his authority, workplace audits continue to grow. Audits avoid the cruelty of the raids undertaken by the Bush administration, but growers and farmers know them as “silent raids.” Immigrants live in constant fear, while growers worry their labor supply will disappear.

The truth is that, until Congress offers existing workers a legal path to remain and employers a legal means to hire them, increasing enforcement creates more problems than it solves.

So what’s the problem with auditing, verifying workers’ legal documentation, and ramping up enforcement?

First, enforcement-only policies carry a high human cost. Already, the record number of deportations and detentions under Obama (roughly 400,000 annually) separate families and decimate communities.

Second, particularly in labor-intensive agriculture, enforcement-only policies have a dire economic impact.

The fear is palpable

Far from the southwest border, enhanced enforcement has growers and their workers cowering. During a recent visit to upstate New York, fruit, vegetable, and dairy producers and farmworkers described to me the recent spike in Border Patrol arrests of migrant workers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workplace audits.

Immigrants’ fear is palpable. Many leave home as infrequently as possible after hearing of undocumented workers detained in stakeouts outside Wal-Marts, check cashers, and even churches. As one undocumented worker told me, “I’m always afraid, and I never leave the farm.” In Sodus, N.Y., John Ghertner of Migrant Support Services explained, “The situation got so bad that the priest was calling his congregation and telling them not to come to mass.”

Growers are scared, too, and many no longer speak on-the-record. One vegetable producer, who requested anonymity, explained why: “Every time a farmer’s in the news, it seems like there’s a silent raid at their farm.”

This silence is remarkable given that growers might otherwise be shouting at the costly interruption. A 2011 Farm Credit East report indicates that, in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York, nearly 1,700 farms were “highly vulnerable” to bankruptcy or a shift to part-time production if labor supply disruption continues.

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