Apr 7, 2007
California Growers Look Immigration Reform Effects

California’s Imperial Valley grew, in about 100 years, from a barren desert to the winter salad bowl of America after farmers found the Colorado River could be diverted to supply irrigation water.

Now, nearly 125,000 acres are devoted to production of nearly a half-billion dollars worth of midwinter salad vegetables. Shipments of head lettuce, leaf lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage start in December, followed by asparagus and carrots, then warm-season vegetables: Sweet Imperial onions, sweet corn, bell peppers, chili peppers, cantaloupes, watermelons and other melons.

That scene could change, and not because of the Colorado River. It’s all about labor.

Ayron Schoneman, executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, said much depends upon the outcome of efforts in the U.S. Congress to resolve measures passed separately – and very differently – by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Last December, the House passed a bill calling for stricter enforcement to clamp down on illegal immigration. The Senate passed a bill offering much broader immigration reform.

Much will depend upon how these two bills are resolved in conference this summer.

“As long as AgJOBS is involved in the reform package, we see ourselves able to work with it,” Schoneman said. “Without AgJOBS, it would be very harmful to us. Enforcement-only is our biggest fear of all.

“We need to get this resolved, and resolved quickly, or we’re in a crisis. There is no legal mechanism to get the workers we need. The H-2A program is practically impossible to implement in California.”

Without reform that provides labor for agriculture, she said, “The industry could leave California and never come back.”

The board and many members of the 150-grower Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association traveled to Washington, D.C., several times this year to explain the situation to Congress – and now they are awaiting the outcome.

A crackdown on workers or those who employ them could dry up the supply of labor for processors such as salad plants, leaving growers with an uncertain future. Some growers already have small operations in Mexico and may look there or even at China as the place to farm.

Schoneman said the current oil crisis and the high price of gasoline might have a benefit, as a lesson.

“It has made people aware of what could happen with food. It is a great advantage to have locally grown food. It’s a great benefit to have food they know is safe and healthful,” she said.

Room for Optimism?

“I’m far less optimistic something will be done this year,” said Howard Rosenberg, an Extension specialist in agricultural labor management at the University of California at Berkeley.

In his view, the issues relating to immigration, terrorism and labor for agriculture have been thoroughly mixed together, and it is doubtful they can be resolved by conferees from the House and Senate. It would be “a heck of a conversation,” he said.

There aren’t “two sides to the issue,” he said.

“It’s more like a crystal with a thousand facets.”

Even before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, injected fear as a powerful motivator, Congress and the Clinton administration were having problems formulating immigration reform. Congress was considering AgJOBs-like provisions in 1998 and trying to make H-2A function better as a “guest worker” program. Year after year, nothing happened.

The questions still remain.

Do we want to restrict immigration? How many people, of what kind, can come in? How do we sustain a food and fiber system that does what ours does, with high quality and low prices, but relies on cheap labor to do it? How do we keep our people and property secure?

The questions have not been fully debated, Rosenberg said, and since they are issues of fundamental public policy, they deserve to be fully considered.

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