May 20, 2011
Hiring farm workers more complicated than ever

To Craig Regelbrugge, conditions for U.S. agricultural employers are about as bad as they’ve ever been.

An estimated three-fourths of ag workers in the country today are not authorized to be here, said the co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR) – and lawmakers and regulatory agencies are practically tripping over each other in an attempt to get rid of illegal workers and/or punish the people who employ them.

But according to Regelbrugge and others, ag employers – including vegetable growers – don’t have many options. Most U.S. citizens don’t want to do farm work, forcing many farmers either to hire workers they suspect might be illegal (even if their paperwork checks out) or to use the “safety net” of the H-2A program – even though that safety net is so small and tattered it can barely catch anything.

So, how did things come to this? With help from sources who’ve been following the trends for decades, Vegetable Growers News has pieced together a narrative of the last 50 years in ag labor and immigration reform.

Goodbye, Bracero

In 1960, CBS aired “Harvest of Shame,” a documentary about the plight of migrant farm workers. The television program helped usher in an era of migrant advocacy, said Fred Leitz, 54, a fruit and vegetable grower in Sodus, Mich.

That era also saw the end of the Bracero Program, a legal channel that brought Mexican farm workers into the United States from World War II until the mid-1960s. By the end, no one wanted to be associated with the program because of claims of worker mistreatment – which is too bad, because even though there were some abuses, the Bracero Program worked well for most participants. Growers got their crops harvested and workers could go home when the season was over, said Jack King, 68, manager of California Farm Bureau Federation’s national affairs division.

“The elimination of the Bracero Program in many ways has led to most of the ills we define as a broken immigration system,” wrote Harry DeMell, an immigration lawyer based in New York City, in a March 30 editorial on the Immigration Daily website. “An estimated 60 percent of all undocumented aliens in the United States today are Mexican workers who would be legally here and documented had that program remained valid.”

When the federal government scrapped the Bracero Program, it threatened other foreign labor programs as well, forcing growers to organize into groups to preserve their labor pools. The National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) was founded in 1964, in response to the increasing pressures on ag employers, said Frank Gasperini, current executive director.
During this period, a group of New England growers organized the New England Apple Council.

Based in Goffstown, N.H., the council started lobbying legislators to preserve its access to the Canadian and Jamaican workers it was using at the time, said John Young, 67, a retired grower and former executive director of the council.

Over the years, the Canadian labor pool dried up, and the council relied more and more on Jamaican workers, he said.

“Harvest of Shame” led to a lot of new protections for farm workers – and rightly so, Leitz said. The industry has come a long way since 1960.

“It’s gotten a lot better for workers and a lot harder for growers.”

UFW’s rise, fall

The migrant advocacy and labor activism movements that began in the 1960s gained steam in the 1970s. In California especially, this was the era of United Farm Workers (UFW) and its charismatic leader, Cesar Chavez.
As skilled as UFW was at unionizing workers and galvanizing public opinion, however, it wasn’t as successful when it came to negotiating contracts with employers, King said.

“Promise Unfulfilled,” a paper published in 2004 by Philip Martin, a labor economist with the University of California-Davis, documents the rise of farm union power in California – and its subsequent decline. Fewer farm workers are unionized today than during the 1970s. According to the paper, it was unauthorized immigration that broke the back of the farm union movement in California.

“California has the most pro-worker and pro-union labor relations law in the United States, and Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers were expected to use it to transform farm work from a job to a career,” Martin wrote. “Instead, unauthorized immigration increased the supply of workers, and farm labor contractors organized them into crews that unions found hard to organize.”

One of the points of contention between growers and workers at that time was mechanization. In the early ’70s, for example, virtually all processed tomatoes in California were still harvested by hand. New machines eventually switched much of that hand labor over to machine labor. UFW claimed such efforts took jobs away from farm workers. The result of such accusations – and lawsuits – was that the University of California virtually abandoned mechanization research, King said.

That was part of the shift of mechanization research from the public sector to the private sector. Advances continued – especially in the processing tomato business, which couldn’t harvest its current volumes without machine labor – but the overall pace of development in the produce industry slowed down, he said.


To Monte Lake, 2011 feels a lot like 1986 – the year Congress passed the sweeping Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Just before that act passed, growers were in much the same position they are today, he said.

Now in his 60s, Lake, an attorney and legal counsel to ACIR and NCAE, was heavily involved in lobbying efforts to pass IRCA.

By 1986, there were about 2 million illegal or undocumented aliens in the United States, DeMell wrote. IRCA gave all of them a path to citizenship.
King said the act solved agriculture’s labor problem – temporarily.

But the second phase of IRCA, which was supposed to replenish workers who left the ag industry, never took place – which helped lead to the massive influx of illegal workers in the country today, Young said. He wasn’t sure why the second phase never kicked in, but it probably had something to do with the changing political climate of the 1990s.

The enactment of IRCA further damaged the farm labor movement, Martin wrote.

“Instead of giving unions a second wind, legalization in 1986 accelerated the vicious spiral of more workers, more labor contractors and declining farm wages and benefits, encouraging workers with other U.S. job options to find non-farm jobs.

“The revolving door that introduces rural Mexicans to the U.S. labor market turned ever faster in the 1980s and 1990s, and the unionized share of the workforce fell while the unauthorized share rose.”

In a 1989 National Agricultural Workers Survey, 7 percent of farm workers admitted they were unauthorized. By 1994, the proportion had risen to 34 percent. By 2000, it was a little more than half. Today, it’s estimated to be 70-75 percent, Regelbrugge said.

IRCA left other legacies, according to numerous sources. The act split the H-2 foreign labor program, which had been around since the 1940s, into an ag branch (H-2A) and a non-ag branch (H-2B). It also created the I-9 form, the document that supposedly proves employees are authorized to work in the United States.

‘Safety net’

Growers still have a legal means of obtaining foreign workers, but even if the H-2A program was perfect, it provides only 2-3 percent of the seasonal labor force in U.S. agriculture. That’s not much of a safety net, Regelbrugge said.

Of course, H-2A is not perfect. In fact – according to several sources – it’s in a state of collapse.

Over the years, the cost and paperwork burdens of H-2A have “skyrocketed out of control,” Young said.

He’s been helping New England growers file H-2A requests ¬- mostly for Jamaican workers – for decades, and the current climate is the worst he’s ever seen. He laid out some of the difficulties: Six years ago, it cost $35 to submit a petition for H-2A workers. Today, the cost is $325. The form, which used to be a couple of pages, is now 170 pages long. The paperwork has to be filed with the appropriate state agency. If that agency approves, the next step is filing with the U.S. Department of Labor in Chicago, then U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in California. After all that, the port of entry in Florida must approve.

If everything is approved and growers get their workers on time (which doesn’t always happen), they have to pay them a prescribed wage. They also have to provide them with housing, transportation to and from Jamaica, daily transportation to and from the farm and at least weekly transportation for shopping. The workers also have to be covered by workman’s comp insurance, Young said.

If they could find reliable native workers, the growers wouldn’t go through such an arduous process – but people in New England don’t want to harvest fruits and vegetables anymore, he said.

Reform efforts

In 2003, the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) was introduced in Congress. The result of compromises made among grower, worker and other ag groups, the bill’s goal was twofold: to reform the H-2A program and legalize the immigration status of those who’d been working in the United States for at least two years.

Despite its broad support in the ag world, AgJOBS has failed to pass through Congress. Attempts to get it through on its own didn’t work. In 2007, AgJOBS was rolled into a comprehensive immigration reform bill. That didn’t pass, either.

Backers in Congress are considering a different version of AgJOBS this year, something more temporary in nature – anything to get a workable guest-worker program to supersede H-2A, King said.

There’s another proposal looming on the Congressional horizon this year: An E-Verify bill. E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows an employer, using I-9 information, to determine the eligibility of an employee to work in the United States. If it passes – there’s a good chance it will – and applies to farmers, it could end up screening out a majority of the ag workforce. That’s one reason the industry needs a reliable guest-worker program more than ever, Regelbrugge said.

“When the dust settles, there has to be a way for the experienced labor force already in the country to work here legally,” he said. “Whether or not that means citizenship has to be worked out.”

Whatever happens, it has to happen this year; 2012 is an election year, when nobody will want to touch anything as controversial as immigration reform, Lake said.

By Matt Milkovich

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