California Growers Look South for More Field Hands

They want illegals let in despite border crackdown

MEXICAN men in jeans and rubber boots, their shirts soiled with dirt and sweat, unload metal hoppers filled with asparagus stalks. Inside a vast, airy factory shed, women with their hair bound in kerchiefs stand by long assembly lines, washing, cutting, and packing the vegetables.

It's harvest time at Victoria Island Farms in California's San Joaquin Valley - the nation's salad bowl. For the next two months, some 200 farm workers will bring the crops in from the fields. Labor contractors provide the harvest crew here, as they do for tens of thousands of farm operators in California. And by their estimates, at least half the workers in this rich agricultural area are illegal immigrants.

But now California farmers worry that the crackdown on illegal immigration being mounted on the border and in the halls of the US Congress might trigger a serious labor shortage in the fields. So they are backing a controversial move on Capitol Hill to admit foreign farm workers as temporary "guest workers."

Two amendments - one that would allow in up to 250,000 workers, another 100,000 - were scheduled for a vote on Thursday. But critics charge that its supporters are hypocritically backing the curbs on illegal immigration while seeking to guarantee a supply of cheap labor for their farms. "You can't have it both ways," Democrat Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota reportedly said to his colleagues.

The more sweeping bill's chief sponsor is Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California, who hails from this part of the state's Central Valley. Backed by agricultural producers across the country, the amendment was approved by the House Agriculture Committee March 5 but may face stiff opposition on the House floor today.

Easing the way

The legislation significantly changes an existing system to bring in temporary agricultural workers - the so-called H-2A program. Last year some 17,000 workers were admitted under that program. But many employers complain that the system is too cumbersome to allow them to respond quickly to labor shortages.

The proposed arrangement makes it far easier for agricultural companies to apply for visas and quickly employ workers. It eliminates the current requirement that a prospective employer show evidence of trying to find a domestic worker, and that he offer housing and other benefits. Under the new law, employers would only have to file statements listing their needs and pledging to abide by certain conditions, such as paying the prevailing wage.

The new system is strongly opposed by a wide range of groups, including unions, the Clinton administration, ethnic groups, and advocates of restrictions on immigration. They contend it will increase illegal immigration and depress wages and working conditions in agriculture. And they say there is no evidence to support the need for such a program.

Critics point to the impact of previous guest-worker programs such as the Bracero program that ran from 1942 to '64, or the work permits granted to undocumented farm workers as part of the 1986 immigration law. Both programs led to a large flow of permanent settlers, they say.

"Once you have established that immigration beachhead and you've got the links to the labor market, then it's possible to bring other folks in," warns Don Villarejo, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies and a farm labor expert.

The new bill puts 25 percent of the guest workers' wages in a special trust fund to be paid when they return home, but many lawmakers believe that is not enough to deter them from staying here.

Those familiar with working conditions also question whether employers will fulfill their pledges regarding working conditions. They argue that federal and state agencies lack the resources to check up on the employers. "It's giving lip service to oversight," says Steven Rosenbaum of the California Rural Legal Association.

Perhaps the most serious charge leveled against the bill and its backers is that there is need for more farm workers. "For at least the last 10 years, we have had a very substantial oversupply of workers," says Mr. Villarejo. The growers' aim is to ensure that are people willing to work at the relatively low wages and under the poor conditions they seek to impose, he contends.

Farmers in San Joaquin, as elsewhere, do not dispute the fact there is no sign of labor shortages so far. But the current system provides no means to deal quickly with such a problem if it now emerges, they say.

"My nightmare is you have a perishable crop and you don't have anybody to harvest it," says Terry Paoletti, who raises wheat, walnuts, tomatoes, beans, and other crops in the San Joaquin Valley.

Unwanted work

Moreover, the farmers argue that even at higher wages, there is no one else willing to do hard farm labor anymore. "White, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking - they're not coming out looking for work," says Carolyn Nichols, a manager at Victoria Island Farms.

"US-born people don't want to do it - that's a reality," agrees labor expert Villarejo, citing statistics that show that the percentage of foreign-born farm workers in California is now 92 percent, compared with 50 percent three decades ago.

But Villarejo and other experts criticize the new legislation for failing to protect the rights of the farm workers, including the right to organize into unions.

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