'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.

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.

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.

Broader economic impact

Should these farms fail, it’s not just immigrant workers or farm owners who would suffer. Their tax payments and social security contributions would dwindle. And, because on-farm jobs (mostly held by unauthorized immigrants) support off-farm jobs like shipping, packing, and processing (mostly held by US citizens), each farm closure would further depress citizens’ employment opportunities. Of the estimated 75,000 jobs supported by these 1,700 northeastern farms, less than one-third were inside the farm gates.

Growers fearful of losing experienced workers have few options. They can either sell their land – likely to grain producers who employ far fewer people – or transition away from labor-intensive crops. One upstate New York vineyard owner told me, “We are gradually reducing our grape production, because of the uncertainty of investing $15,000 per acre and not knowing you’ll have the labor.”

Either selling land or shifting crops means fewer farm jobs and reduced domestic fruit and vegetable production. This makes no sense at a time when unemployment tops our country’s economic concerns, government is calling for more fruit and vegetables on our plates, and consumers are clamoring for local produce.

Shortage of labor

The aforementioned vegetable farmer, who has already shifted land to grain production, stated simply: “If E-verify were made mandatory, a For Sale sign would go up outside.” Like many other growers nationwide, her repeated efforts to hire US citizens for seasonal picking have failed; were she subject to E-Verify, she has no idea where to get enough work-authorized employees to sustain her business.

Stephen Colbert learned the same lesson when he took up the United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” challenge by working for a day on a New York farm – the union’s national effort to place US citizens in seasonal farm labor last year attracted only nine citizens or legal residents, most or whom quit soon after beginning work.

Growers would accept increased workplace enforcement if they could count on having enough authorized workers. But, they argue, the existing guest-worker program, H-2A, is rife with red tape producing costly delays. H-2A only accounts for roughly three percent of this country’s hired farm laborers, while undocumented immigrants constitute between half and three-quarters of the total. Growers thus call for an expanded, streamlined guest worker program.

But as farmworker advocates countered at a recent House hearing on H-2A, guest worker programs have been riddled with exploitation – including wage theft, discrimination, physical and sexual abuse, and blacklisting workers who complain about conditions. A 2007 Southern Poverty Law Center report on guest worker programs was tellingly titled, “Close to Slavery.”

A way to meet needs of growers, workers, and economy

Still, the growers’ and farmworkers’ positions are not irreconcilable. In fact, their advocates have been joined at the hip in lobbying efforts since 2003, when they forged a bipartisan compromise bill, which garnered a remarkable 63 Senate co-sponsors, called AgJobs (The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act). AgJobs would expand H-2A, improve worker protections, and offer legalization for farmworkers already here.

In 2011, the tea-flavored House of Representatives has taken AgJobs off the table and rendered radioactive any legislation including a path to citizenship. But conservative legislators should reconsider. Growers advocating a balanced approach to immigration reform are often conservatives themselves, who side with Republicans on most issues, but feel alienated by the party’s immigration approach.

Elected officials need to find a solution that works for growers, farmworkers, and the economy. Otherwise, instead of ushering in a bountiful harvest, summer will come to stand for lost possibility on America’s farms.

Daniel Altschuler is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and has written extensively on immigration politics. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.

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