There’s a slowdown all along the Mexican border. Border Patrol agents caught fully 27 percent fewer illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the United States between November 1 and April 30 than during the same six months a year ago.
Some of this slowdown stems from intensified enforcement efforts ranging from expansion of the physical and electronic border fence that’s growing daily. The Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify program, allowing employers to tell quickly whether job applicants enjoy legal immigration status, also is a factor.
But America’s economic miseries are behind most of the slowdown. Construction, hotel and many other categories of jobs often taken by illegal immigrants have dried up, so there’s less of a magnet for people coming here.
In this climate, one employment category steadily features surplus, untaken job openings: agriculture. California farms don’t have the kind of worker shortage they suffered two years ago, when many crops rotted on trees and vines for lack of labor to pick them. But many still report they’re short of reliable workers and would like two things to correct a situation that has caused them to fallow more than 500,000 acres of fertile farmland for lack of hands to plant and pick crops:
Assurance they can keep bringing back experienced workers (many of them illegals) for seasonal jobs, and a paperwork speedup in the federal H-2A program that allows some farm workers to enter legally on temporary visas.
Now comes Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein with a plan to fix these problems. “In a sense, this might set a pattern for overall immigration reform,” she said in an interview. Feinstein would allow illegal immigrants already here to achieve temporary legal status if they can prove they’ve worked at least 150 days in each of the last two years or 100 days in each of the last five. She would allow no more than 1.35 million such legalizations (families of legalized workers could also apply). After three more years of steady work (at least 150 days per year), the former illegals and their families could apply for green cards conferring permanent legal residency.
Before giving green cards, though, Feinstein’s bill would assess a $500 per person fine for breaking the law by entering America illegally. It would also demand that immigrants prove they are current on all taxes and have clean criminal records.
Her proposal is co-sponsored by 16 other Democratic senators. Conspicuously absent is Republican John McCain of Arizona, who carried a wider-ranging immigration reform and amnesty bill during the year before he became his party’s 2008 presidential candidate. An identical bill in the House is co-sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of Los Angeles and Central Valley Republican Reps. George Radanovich of Mariposa and Devin Nunes of Visalia, among many others.
This plan is backed by most regional and national agriculture organizations, including the Western Growers Assn., the Dairy Farmers of America and the National Council of Agricultural Employers. The United Farm Workers union also is aboard.
But opponents call the measure just another amnesty plan that would eventually grant illegal immigrants access to all U.S. jobs even though they in effect jumped the line for entering this county legally. There’s also the claim this would allow farms to keep exploiting the cheap labor of illegals who can’t protest.
“These workers are here,” Feinstein said. “Yes, there are enforcement issues, but we know this much for sure: if there are questions over whether workers will be allowed to come back in future years, they will simply stay here, legally or not, and won’t return home when it’s off-season for farm jobs.”
Feinstein acknowledges the farm labor shortage of two and three years ago is less severe now, partly because many illegal immigrant workers are back in field work, their jobs in construction and other areas gone. “That’s just a short-term thing,” she says. “The long-term shortage is still there. We have billions of dollars a year in lost production right now, we have California farmers leasing land in Mexico to grow crops and we are importing more foreign produce because of it, which comes with certain health hazards.”
When it comes to wages, the Feinstein measure would freeze the federal Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which requires California farmers to pay legal seasonal workers in the H-2A program at least $9.72 per hour. This rate would stay the same for three years after her bill becomes law, if that happens. The AEW rate, of course, does not apply to illegals, who often receive the state’s minimum wage of $8 per hour, or less.
The bottom line: Feinstein’s bill would probably solve farm labor shortages for years to come and provides a balanced model for the wider-ranging immigration reform that President Obama says he wants. But its fate in Congress is completely uncertain, because of that buzz word “amnesty.”