Community Columns

Immigration law: Preserve workers' dignity, let farmers farm

Growers and producers have had to deal with an ever-increasing amount of regulations. The Social Security "no-match letter" has the potential of becoming one of the most devastating challenges American agriculture has faced in decades.

If this regulation is truly enforced, and if provisions for immigrant labor are not streamlined or established, farm operators will be scrambling to find labor. The words "labor shortage" will take on a whole new meaning.

There is nothing comforting about the "safe harbor" concept. A safe harbor suggests that if farm employers follow certain steps, they will make sure undocumented workers are not employed, and thus they will be protecting themselves from potential fines. And so it is. But I suspect the percentage of documented agricultural workers is minuscule. So where is the benefit to agriculture of finding a safe harbor where producers end up proving the people they have hired are undocumented?

Who is going to prune, harvest, drive farm equipment, feed livestock and milk cows? Although I see a number of loopholes in the regulation, the bottom line is that year-round employment or rehiring of loyal returning seasonal workers will be discouraged. Unless, of course, employees return with a different name.

The most visible, well-paying farm operators, who hire directly rather than through farm labor contractors, might be most vulnerable. Many of these have loyal, well-paid returning seasonal workers as well as a steady force of year-round employees. It will be much easier for some labor contractors to hire the same person with a different name than for the more established farm operators.

Loopholes and poor design are synonymous with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Farm employers at the time were afraid they might be required to become document experts. Producers, however, were told not to worry, to simply use the 100-foot rule: "If a document looks legal 100 feet away, treat it as legal."

That might sound funny now, but there is nothing funny about the safe harbor process.

We need a comprehensive approach to immigration issues where worker dignity is preserved and employers are able to farm. Such a process cannot function if it is cumbersome and unresponsive to agriculture's fluctuating seasonal needs.

Immigration policies that would forbid workers from returning after working a number of years do not recognize the need for trained people. Nor do they acknowledge the needs of the immigrant family. The children of most immigrants quickly lose their ability to speak their parents' language. It would be quite traumatic for these children to return to a culture that now is completely foreign to them. We are not just speaking about immigrants who help with the harvest of crops, but those who have year-round positions driving farm equipment or working with livestock, many of whom have established deep roots in the community.

An immigration policy will never work if the employer is expected to use tools he or she doesn't have to determine an applicant's legal status. Anti-immigrant and anti-agriculture sentiment has been mounting over these divisive issues. The only good solution will have to be thought out carefully; it will have to be sustainable. All parties need to sit down and come to potential solutions that meet the needs of those involved and are realistic. Before such solutions can be developed, those needs must be truly understood.

The worst thing that could happen is enactment of another law that only works because the loopholes are big enough. The competitive edge of American agriculture is at stake.

Billikopf is a labor management farm adviser with the University of California farm extension service in Stanislaus County.