The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is making good on a promise to step up audits on illegal immigrants, and one of the biggest apple growers in central Washington is Exhibit A that agriculture is not exempt from the scrutiny.
The shift in enforcement focus from targeting illegal immigrants during the Bush administration to targeting employers who hire them in the Obama administration was announced last spring by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Lorie Dankers, spokeswoman for the customs office in Seattle, would not confirm or deny that customs conducted an I-9 audit at Brewster, Wash.-based Gebbers Farms, which sells apples and cherries through Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, Wash.
The Yakima (Wash.) Valley Herald reported a customs audit concluded in December resulted in the dismissal of more than 550 workers at the company.
âWhat I can say is that no industry is immune from being audited by ICE,â Dankers said.
A spokesman for Gebbers Farms declined to comment on the issue.
According to the companyâs Web site, the family farm has been growing apples for more than a century and has more than 5,000 acres.
Those ICE audits in the Northwest been part of about 1,000 workplace audits announced last November by ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton.
ICE audits involve a comprehensive review of I-9 forms, which is a record of employee work documents and identity â basically, proof the employee is entitled to work in the U.S.
Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, said growers are in an era of increased enforcement of labor laws, and her association supports âreasonableâ enforcement.
But labor laws as currently written put ag employers in a Catch 22 situation, where they're vulnerable to false documentation and disruptive raids, such as what happened to Gebbers, she said.
âItâs an untenable situation,â Foster said. âItâs not just a problem for apple and tree fruit growers.â
Dankers said that when an audit is done, ICE would give the company of list of employees whose documents are not in order. After that, the company has an opportunity to correct those if possible. Dismissals of workers and fines against employers are possible outcomes of ICE audits.
Apple industry leaders say the fact that some illegal immigrants were revealed in audits should not be a surprise.
âI think the industry has been candid and upfront with anybody with whom we have ever discussed the labor situation by noting that we felt we had a significant volume of undocumented workers that are working here,â said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticulture Association, Wenatchee.
Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, Yakima, said the audit has raised other growersâ concerns about the integrity of their I-9 forms.
Gempler said thereâs no official number of illegal workers in the tree fruit industry but estimates from producers put it around 70%.
The Gebbers raid is a good example of why Congress should pass labor reform proposals currently under consideration in the House and Senate, Foster said.
The proposed reforms âwould provide a legal and stable supply of workers and greatly improve the guest worker programs, making them more user-friendly,â Foster said.
Grim said the customs raids, along with what he called unworkable H-2A regulations that were made final March 15, cause concern about the labor situation.
Gempler said only about 2% of Washingtonâs seasonal work force is in the H-2A guest worker program.
Grim said the H-2A program isnât the complete answer to a legal work force.
âThere are certainly folks out there who donât want H-2A to work and they donât want a program that allows for workers to come in for an industry like ours and do the necessary work in jobs that others donât want,â Grim said.
With added cherry acreage coming online and the larger crop of apples expected, labor will be in strong demand.
âWe will certainly have needs in the warehouse and in the field for plenty of workers, and there is genuine concern about whether those people will be there given what is going on between the ICE raids and H-2A.,â Grim said.
Grim said has heard that there may be other audits of operations going on, but he has not verified that.
âCommon sense and logic tells me that if you are the ICE organization and you are looking at an industry and you find significant issues â that tells me they will keep looking in that particular area and find others who are not compliant,â he said. âMy guess is that there will be more.â
Grim said growers are not facing labor shortages in the recession, because workers formerly employed in construction have returned to agriculture. Many of those workers, however, would be flagged by an audit, he said.
âWe understand the government has a responsibility to enforce the law,â Foster said. âWe also want to make sure that we produce the best apples we can and we need a reliable supply of workers to do that.â
Business Editor Bruce Blythe contributed to this article.