Lack of Labor Scares Farmers

Maria Jimenez sorts bell peppers at George Chiala Farms.

Shortage of migrant workers has local growers asking for fewer
border restrictions
Morgan Hill – Efforts to rid the country of illegal Mexican immigrants have caught up with local farmers, who say shortages of migrant farmworkers are threatening California’s position as the world’s biggest food supplier.

“It was real bad, the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Tim Chiala, of Chiala Farms in Morgan Hill. “At some points in the year, we couldn’t even get our stuff picked. We had to abandon fields.”

Images of illegal immigrants pouring into the U.S. stir impassioned pleas to close the border and inspired a vigilante group called The Minuteman to run their own armed patrols earlier this year. With the Department of Homeland Security regularly sweeping big farms in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys, laborers critical to California’s farms are being sent home and intimidated out of coming north for work.

The shortage is making it tough for farmers up and down the state who rely on the low-cost laborers to harvest their crops. Without federal legislation to ease the shortage, they say, it’s going to get worse. Luawanna Hallstrom, who farms in San Diego and is co-chairwoman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, said that if workers can’t get to the fields, the fields will go to them.

“We’ve got a huge crisis on our hands,” Hallstrom said. “People think that if we just close the borders, we won’t have any problems, but the food that is put on the plates of Americans every day is from labor outsourced to people from outside this country. People need to understand that the crops will be harvested by that labor whether it happens in this country or another country.”

This year, Chiala had to plow over fields of jalapeño peppers because there weren’t enough workers to clean the fields. In the past, his strawberry and raspberry foreman, Lorenzo Castillo, has had to turn laborers away. Not this year.

“I had to take whatever I could,” Castillo said. “People just weren’t coming by because maybe they were working other places or they couldn’t cross the [border].”

Chiala said that farms are also losing workers to fast food joints, restaurants and hotels, who offer similar wages for much easier work. He said potential workers would demand to know the yield of a field so they could guarantee how much they’d be paid to harvest it.

“We’ve gone real high on some piece rates and it doesn’t matter, they just don’t want to do that work,” he said. “It doesn’t help to have bands of armed men chasing people away at the border.”

Pete Aiello, who manages Uesugi Farms in Gilroy and San Martin, said he didn’t suffer as much as some of his colleagues because Uesugi has a dedicated workforce of about 100 people, but the shortage has been a problem.

“Finding any kind of labor was a godsend for some growers,” he said, “but a good experienced workforce was almost impossible.”

The situation has become so dire that the typically conservative farm community has adopted a traditionally liberal stance on immigration issues. Most farmers aren’t advocating open borders, but they do want to see generous guest worker programs, amnesties for longtime workers who want to live in the U.S. permanently, and even housing supported by the government.

“The only way you can guarantee labor is to build a labor camp and draw upon it all year,” Chiala said, noting that the closest significant farmworker housing is in Salinas. “We’d like to see the state work with farms on that.” The Ochoa labor camp in Gilroy is only operational part of the year.

Aiello said current laws need to be refined and offer protections for workers.

“They can certainly do a better job of changing some of these laws,” he said. “They can use some refining. We could use an emergency provision to allow us to bring some folks into this country to get this work done for us.”

Hallstrom, who is also affiliated with the California Farm Bureau, said California and Arizona are about 37,000 workers short for the upcoming winter vegetable harvest and the state’s citrus growers are in similar straits. There are a number of bills circulating on Capitol Hill, but getting them passed since Sept. 11 has proved impossible.

According to the Associated Press, many of the efforts are led by Republicans. GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona propose letting immigrant workers enter the country for two years, followed by a one-year break. Workers could repeat that pattern two more times, but then have to return home.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., back legislation that would let illegal aliens work in the U.S. for up to six years. After that, they would have to be on track to obtaining legal residency or leave. Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has proposed giving undocumented workers legal status if they pass criminal background checks, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, have paid taxes, can demonstrate a knowledge of English and pay a $2,000 fine.

But even with the support of Pres. George W. Bush, who said Monday he wants to crack down on illegal immigration but give work visas to people who already have jobs, there are serious doubts that any legislation will get passed in an election year.

Hallstrom said relief will come only when people understand that a closed border is against the country’s best interests.

“This is very complicated. There are national security issues and an economy that depends on this labor.,” she said. “We need to stop looking at this as a border control issue and face the reality of the situation. When people are willing to do that we will find a solution that makes sense we can then be responsible for who’s in this country and why.”

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