Immigration bill concerns farmers
Los Angeles — For farmers of the West, who depend on a largely illegal work force to harvest their crops, congressional moves to shut off the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States causes concern. To some, it brings back memories of labor problems of 20 years ago.
Still fresh in the minds of farm managers here is the chaos that gripped that first harvest after the end of the ''bracero'' program, which brought Mexican guest workers into American fields from 1942 to 1964.
In 1964, desperate growers gave free bus rides west to Sioux Indians from North Dakota, Navajos from New Mexico, whites from Appalachia, and blacks from Mississippi. Indigents were recruited from the skid-row alleys of downtown Los Angeles. Barely half the new recruits ever reported to work, and many of the rest had disappeared by the end of the first week.
Some growers fear a repetition of this type of labor disruption under the proposed Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill, which would punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. To cushion the impact of the changes, they have fought hard to Have a new guest-torker program included in the bill.
The notion of bringing temporary guest workers into the US is a politically loaded one in the West, partly because of the widespread view that the bracero workers of the postwar era were badly exploited.
There are two guest-worker programs emerging in the Simpson-Mazzoli package. One - which appears in both the House and Senate versions of the bill - is an expansion and streamlining of the small-scale federal ''H-2'' program, which most Western growers find impractical, because it requires applications 80 days in advance.
The House bill contains a much more far-reaching program that could allow as many as half a million foreign farm workers a year into the country to harvest perishable crops. Growers could apply for workers only 72 hours before they needed them.
For growers, who have gradually and grudgingly accepted the fact that legal sanctions against hiring undocumented workers are on the way, the House guest-worker amendments are more generous than they could have hoped for.
''A lot of us were astounded at the way this thing passed the House,'' says Rob Cartwright, personnel manager for Tejon Farming Company and president of a state association of farm-personnel managers. ''It's too good to be true.''
But Mr. Cartwright - like the bill sponsors, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky - does not expect to see the House's generous guest-worker plan survive the Senate-House conference committee that must forge a joint bill.
If the reform bill that emerges from Congress looks more like the Senate's version than the House's, Cartwright says, ''then those of us with highly perishable crops are in trouble.''
Hiring through government-controlled guest-worker plans would add something of a bureaucratic nuisance to farm hiring, but it may be worth the added cost to growers, says Russell L. Williams, president of Agricultural Producers in Valencia, Calif.
Organized labor, especially the United Farm Workers, has a very different view of the expanded guest-worker plans.
At the UFW, the fear is that an extensive guest-worker program would make farm workers nearly impossible to organize. To the union, guest workers are in a revolving door in which there is high turnover from year to year and thorough control of the work force by growers.
The Panetta-Morrison amendment (the guest-worker program adopted in the House), differs from the old bracero plan in that the workers can move from grower to grower within a designated agricultural region, rather than being attached for better or worse to one grower. Yet in the union's view, the bureaucratic nature of the program would make it easy for farmers to blackball workers with union sympathies.
The bracero program is widely felt to have created a captive work force and depressed agricultural wages. Although the law demanded that the program have no adverse effect on American wages or employment, there was no enforcement of standards.
The Panetta amendment would give the Department of Labor oversight and a budget for enforcement, but Dolores Huerta, first vice-president of the United Farm Workers union, is skeptical. Like other union leaders, and even some farm managers such as Rob Cartwright, Ms. Huerta says she would rather see a generous amnesty of undocumented workers that could work the harvests, allowing the agricultural work force to stabilize.