Don Curlee: U.S. ag relies on foreign workers
Producing and preparing food for distribution in America depends on hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, and it is not just a California issue.
Foreign workers, legal or illegal, are a major part of food production and processing in many states. Tomatoes in Florida, poultry in Arkansas, pickles in Michigan, apples in Washington, peaches in Georgia, and large numbers of processing and packaging facilities in practically every state depend on workers from outside the United States. Mexico is the primary supplier.
California agriculture has been consistently straightforward about its need for foreign workers. In the 1950s, it championed the Bracero program, which transported thousands of workers from Mexico each year to worksites in the state. They worked and were housed on or near farms and ranches, and returned to their homes in Mexico when the season ended.
Since the end of that program, the agricultural industry in California has continued to supply jobs to 350,000 to 500,000 foreign workers each year. Many, of course, have arrived illegally.
While that is a significant number, current estimates are that agriculture in all states requires between 21⁄2 million to 3 million foreign workers each year. It's a good bet that the majority are illegal immigrants.
Since the word is out and other states dependent on foreign workers are acknowledging that much in their agricultural economies is based on illegal workers, Congress seems to be looking for a dramatic resolution to illegal immigration.
The current fix to avoid the hiring of illegals is called E-Verify. The program proposes that every employer report by Internet the Social Security and other numbers that potential employees submit as they apply for work. Supposedly email allows a prompt check or verification and a quick feedback.
But it also provides a quickly sprung trap for unsuspecting hirees, who immediately become subject to deportation or jail. E-Verify is certain to squeeze the supply line of foreign workers to a trickle overnight if it goes into effect. Georgia, mentioned above, has a state-operated E-Verify program, and food producers are having extreme difficulties finding laborers. Foreign workers are bypassing the state.
Several leaders and spokesmen for California agriculture have decried the E-Verify procedure. They don't have to go far to make their point because the leading proponents of the process are some congressional representatives from California.
It's hypocritical to try to make the case for illegality, whether it involves workers from Mexico or any other issue. However, it is reasonable to expect political representatives to take a more holistic view, at least consider some means for allowing 3 million people to do the work nobody else is willing to do.
Needless to say, their work is essential to the production, preparation, handling and transporting of the basic food supplies that the nation depends on. The foreign workers must be treated humanely, and the industry that hires most of them needs to be respected and included in whatever remedy can be devised to end their illegality.
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, the predominant trade association of the California and Arizona produce industry, said: "The fresh produce industry has always required a foreign workforce. We have effectively made the case that our labor requirements are different from all other industries and that retaining a domestic supply of food is a national security imperative."
Better to depend on foreign workers than foreign production of the nation's food under conditions we can't control, at prices we might have trouble paying.
If the job market becomes a huge slide into an electronic abyss that results in deportation or worse, the flow of job seekers can be expected to dry up. Many of the foods and farm products we take for granted are sure to follow — quickly.