The confluence of events was striking: On the same early summer day that the U.S. Senate’s powerful appropriations committee killed a bill allowing farmers to legally import badly needed foreign workers, President Bush’s labor secretary issued new regulations making it easier for every other kind of employer to do exactly that.
It was almost as if the Washington establishment was saying few in high places care how many crops rot on trees and vines for lack of people to pick them, while they do care about the well-being of building contractors, tree nurseries and restaurants. Or, to paraphrase a famous New York Daily News headline of the 1970s: “Feds to California Farmers: Drop Dead.”
And make no mistake about it, California farmers badly need more foreign labor. Large quantities of peaches, almonds, apricots, artichokes and many other crops grown in all parts of this state went unharvested last year, resulting in higher food prices all over America. This was long before the ethanol-enhanced food price hikes of the last six months.
To prevent crops from going to waste again this year, California’s Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein forged an unusual across-the-aisle alliance with scandal-ridden Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig to push an ambitious agricultural workers plan that would have given temporary legal status to 1.35 million illegal immigrant farm workers and their immediate families. The rotting-on-the-vine problem is just as severe in Idaho, where apples and potatoes were among partially wasted crops last year
The Feinstein-Craig bill would have let farmers hire temporary workers without fear of raids and fines by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. It would have relieved farm workers of worrying about deportation and looking over their shoulders as they worked.
And it would have given illegal immigrant farm workers temporary legal status for five years if they’re already here, thus allowing farmers some work force stability, as they could expect the same people to work their fields and orchards several years in a row.
Critics instantly labeled this an amnesty bill, even though it gave illegal immigrants no new rights except the right to accept jobs if no American citizen workers had applied for them. There was no path to eventual citizenship and no green card. The plan even included fines and background checks for temporarily-legalized guest workers.
Essentially, it would have placed farmers and their immigrant workers on much the same footing as employers who hire the 66,000 H-2B workers allowed in on temporary visas to help fill vacant jobs at other kinds of businesses. At the very same time the Senate dumped the provision to help farmers, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was eliminating many paperwork delays for other types of importers of unskilled workers. And with H-2B visas, there’s no requirement that Americans be given first preference.
It’s much the same with H-1B visas intended for highly skilled workers. In that category, Bush administration policy specifically grants employers permission to import foreign workers even when qualified U.S. citizens are available.
The Feinstein-Craig guest worker bill didn’t lose by much in the appropriations committee, where it died on a parliamentary maneuver, in large part because it got no support from Bush and his aides.
All this means it would be a mistake if Feinstein and Craig allow their measure to die without more of a fight. In their first attempt, they tried to attach it to an Iraq war financing bill. Having lost in that effort, they should try to attach it to another bill of a different sort, perhaps one headed for a different committee where it might receive a more hospitable reception.
For giving farmers the ability to hire all the workers they need is vital not just to them and the workers, but also for consumers. After their labor woes of last summer, some farmers switched from fruits and vegetables to less labor-intensive crops like grain and corn this year. That has already reduced the amount of crops available to canners this year and will likely drive up the priced of canned fruits and vegetables next winter.
Who needs that happening at the same time that the prices of gasoline, milk and other essentials are also sky high and climbing?
No, this plan by itself would not solve the nation’s immigration woes. But it would solve a major problem of California farmers will little pain for anyone else at the same time it helps consumers.
And it would put farmers on a more level footing with other employers of immigrant workers, something they certainly deserve, even if many people in Washington don’t appear to agree.