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Stakes in immigration debate remain crucial for agriculture
Few sectors of the American economy have more at stake in the immigration fight now raging in Congress than agriculture and food manufacturing.

According to March 2005 survey data released by the Pew Hispanic Center on March 7, 2006, 24 percent of “all workers employed in (U.S.) farming occupations are unauthorized migrants” as are 12 percent in food processing and 27 percent “of all butchers and other food processing workers.”

Unauthorized migrants means just what you think it does, explains the Pew Center: “A person who resides in the U.S. but who is not a U.S. citizen, has not been admitted for permanent residence, and is not in a set of specific authorized temporary statuses permitting longer-term residence and work.”

By that definition, Pew estimates there are 11.5 to 12 million unauthorized migrants in the U.S. today. A year ago, Pew calculated that 7.2 million of them had jobs here. That means 4.9 percent of the American workforce of 148 million were unauthorized, or illegal, workers.

In its March-released demographic profile of American ag workers, the U.S. Dept. of Labor noted that “just 23 percent of all hired crop farm workers were born in the United States; 75 percent were born in Mexico, two percent in other Central American countries, and one percent in other countries.”

The last time Congress tackled illegal immigration and unauthorized workers, the bitter, divisive debate resulted in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Its central tenets - worker amnesty, employer sanctions, enhanced border enforcement - reformed little and controlled nothing.

In 1986 there were 6 million illegals in the U.S.; today there are 12 million.

So, what now?

In December, the House of Representatives passed one of the toughest anti-immigrant laws possible: arrest and jail all illegals, criminalize employers who hire them, dig and build $2.2 billion worth of ditches and walls to keep ‘em out, hire thousands more feds to patrol U.S. borders.

Not included in the House bill was any means to register those already here; no streamlined, expanded “guest worker” program; no expanded visa program.

Ag powerhouses like the American Farm Bureau Federation, howl at this hang-‘em-high approach. Jailing all illegals in farm country, AFBF points out, would shut down one-third of the U.S. fruit and vegetable production overnight. That cost alone, AFBF estimates, would be $5-$9 billion.

Moreover, guesses AFBF, another $5 billion in losses would accrue to other farm sectors like dairy and pork production that now are heavily dependent on migrant labor.

Neither of those really relevant reasons - let alone the fact that, if enacted, the House bill could give away huge portions of our domestic food markets to imports - account for the obvious: jailing all the illegal migrant workers in the U.S. today would require the nation to quintuple its cell space. It’s never going to happen.

Neither should the House bill, a 100 percent, USDA-inspected slab of red meat for the GOP’s core conservatives. In fact, it’s so far right that not even President Bush supports it.

A more workable bill is scheduled to be debated in the Senate the week of April 3. It’s an interesting starting point to bring America’s promise to any or all unauthorized workers already here, especially those working on American farms.

Its core idea allows illegal immigrants who work, pay taxes and learn English and civics to become American citizens after 11 years. It also doubles the number of six-year work visas for both skilled and unskilled foreign workers - both programs, known as H-1B and H-2B, are capped at about 65,000 per year - to enter the country legally to work.

And, more importantly, it would untangle the web of paperwork ag employers often find themselves trapped in when securing legal immigrant farm labor.

That paperwork, guess immigration experts, encourage even legal-minded ag employers to flout the law. It’s estimated that nearly 50 percent of the known 800,000 farmworkers in the United States are unauthorized because employers can't hack through the bureaucratic thicket. The Senate approach makes much more sense - common as well as economic - than building walls and jails.

This farm news was published in the April 5, 2006 issue of Farm World.