Undocumented workers and their supporters aren't the only ones concerned about what's boiling up on Capitol Hill. The Florida agricultural industry knows it could implode without the labor of these workers.
Florida is home to an estimated 850,000 illegal immigrants, the country's third largest population behind California and Texas. Across the state in nine cities, tens of thousands of people have organized to protest the House of Representatives immigration reform bill HR 4437. The bill offers enforcement policy without legalization reform. Protesters also voiced support for Senate immigration legislation, which does include legalization steps.
In Fort Myers, Fla., an estimated 75,000 people showed up. In Tampa, Fla., more than 3,000 protesters chanted "Si, se puede" ("Yes we can"). More than 2,000 people gathered in Homestead, Fla., home of tomato, squash and snap pea fields and the undocumented workers who pick them. Similar protests took place across the country.
"If you rounded up everyone undocumented, supply would be interrupted," said Victor Story Jr., owner and president of Story Groves Inc. and Story Citrus Services Inc., both in Babson Park, Fla., "There'd be no one to harvest crops."
Story said there is inventory carry-over in the citrus business, but if immigration officials cracked down on farms, the result would be similar to a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or a freeze. He said his businesses do not use undocumented workers and that his workers are required to provide a social security number and picture ID.
Even though many growers require identification, some immigrants falsify such documents. In a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress titled, "Farm Labor Shortages and Im-migration Policy," an unnamed grower representative said, "Frequently, INS audits of agricultural employers reveal that 60 to 70 percent of seasonal agricultural workers have provided fraudulent documents. The employer is then required to dismiss each employee on the list who cannot provide a valid employment authorization document, something few workers can do."
Florida mirrors these numbers. Mike Carlton, director of production and labor affairs at Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, said, "Anecdotal information from agricultural operations in Florida suggests that 70 percent or more of our harvesting workforce may have fraudulent documents."
A world without undocumented labor
The absence of undocumented work-ers could do major damage to the health of the agriculture industry.
"Some analysis has indicated that more than 30 percent of our domestic supply of fruits and vegetables would have to be imported if the undocumented workforce were not available," Carlton said. "In Florida, that figure is probably much higher due to our high percentage of crops that require hand harvesting, and the loss of agricultural land would be high.
"That means of course, more development, less land for water recharge and significantly higher food costs, among other things."
Story said he assumes that he might not get a whole crop in every year be-cause of external factors. But at the very least, he said he needs his crops picked to stay in business.
"Without enough labor, there'd be layoffs, people wouldn't be able to make payments on their machinery," Story said. "It could have a real ripple effect across the economy and the country."
Industry experts agree that growers' options would be to move out of the country, where labor would be legal, or go out of business.
"At some point we have to ask ourselves, 'Do we want our food grown in the United States? Or do we want to rely on foreign sources for food like we do for oil?'" said Casey Welch, director of federal government affairs at the Florida Farm Bureau, Tallahassee. "Responsible people say that's something that we don't want to do."
"In the old days, families made up most of the labor force. Now it's younger males sending money back home to their families," said Marty McKenna, owner of McKenna & Associates Citrus Inc., Sebring, Fla., and president of Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland.
He said he thinks this has become the trend because it is harder to get back and forth across the border. Most of the new workers are 18 to 27 years old and send money home every Friday, McKenna said.
"Generally they stay in agriculture for a couple of seasons, then they get a job up the American dream ladder or go back to Mexico," he said.
Migrant workers used to come up from Mexico to work and then go back at the end of the growing season, said Walter Kates, director of the Labor Relations Division of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. But now with tightened security at the borders, workers are being forced to stay if they want to work in America.
"Once these workers come over, they're scared to go home to Mexico because of the legal process," McKenna said. "Having a way to have documented workers come and go across the border would be good. We need something to untrap them and let them have a more normal-type life."
Legislation, including provisions specifically for agricultural laborers, currently is circulating in the Senate, while nothing similar is in the works in the House of Representatives.
On April 6, the agriculture-specific legislation AgJOBS was included as one of 150 amendments to the immigration reform bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. The next day, the bill received only 38 of 60 votes needed to progress. Debate on the bill resumed following the Easter recess. Carlton said the next incarnation of AgJOBS could pass as part of what is referred to as the Hagel/Martinez compromise.
AgJOBS' official name is Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2005, which was originally sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. The compromise, sponsored by Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., includes a one-time opportunity for trained agriculture workers who lack proper documentation to apply for legalized status by undergoing a background check, paying a substantial fine, and committing to stay in the agricultural workforce for at least three years, according to Florida Citrus Mutual.
Even if AgJOBS became law, it still is unclear how many permanent resident cards (green cards) would be issued. Currently, 140,000 cards are issued each year - but Sharon Huges, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, Washington D.C., said the Senate is talking about raising it to about 450,000 a year, starting in 2007.
The compromise also includes reform for the 50-year-old H-2A guest worker program to make it more user-friendly and affordable for growers. The current H-2A only affects about 2 percent to 3 percent of the entire agriculture labor force. Kates said the program is outdated and cumbersome because of bureaucracy.
AgJOBS changes H-2A by reducing the federal government's role in the guest worker process and giving workers the right to file a lawsuit in federal court concerning their wages or working conditions. Also, the prevailing wage employers pay agriculture workers would be frozen for the next three years, to allow employers to adjust to the program.
"AgJOBS recognizes that the 50-year-old H-2A program is unworkable for most of agriculture and seeks to create a system that not only protects any domestic worker seeking a job and the guest workers that come in under the program, but also seeks to make the program easier to use by reducing the red tape associated with it and creating a fairer wage structure than is currently in place," Carlton said.
Florida Ag reaction
Although AgJOBS appears to be the only option for agriculture to rally behind, Florida industry growers and associations are skeptically waiting to see what happens. If AgJOBS fails to be-come law, the next step would be to see that a similar bill gets pushed through.
"If it passes, ag business and workers stay static," Kates said. "If it fails, there will be continued and repeated efforts to pass immigration reform that allows ag workers to stay. With the current upheaval in the U.S., this issue isn't going away."
Carlton agreed. "The AgJOBS portion of the Senate immigration bill is essential to the survival of not only Florida but the nation's agriculture," he said."Increased emphasis on interior enforcement means that we must have a reformed guest worker program if growers are going to be able to participate in bringing in guest workers, and the seasonal nature of harvesting makes it exceedingly difficult to attract domestic workers.
"It isn't a perfect bill, and there will still be costs and adjustments that have to be made by agriculture, but it is supported by both employers and worker representatives and puts agriculture in a position to survive."
Welsh said legislative change might not be in the immediate future.
"We are far away from getting this bill passed," Welsh said. "It's possible it won't pass by the end of the year. There will be an election in Congress this fall, with the 110th Congress forming in January."
But Kates said the heated public debate on immigration reform might have increased the need for expedient change.
"Due to the increased attention and tighter borders and regulations, the Florida ag industry is slowly losing its workforce," he said.
Kates said he thinks about 20 percent of the agriculture workforce remains each year as 80 percent rotates in from Mexico.
On April 20, The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unveiled their comprehensive immigration reform strategy for the nation's interior. One of three primary courses of action they plan to carry out is "to build strong worksite enforcement and compliance programs to deter illegal employment."
Rumors about raids have swept across Florida, Carlton said. In late April, Paul Orsenigo, co-owner of Growers Management Inc., Belle Glade, Fla., said a colleague told him buses of laborers had been stopped and workers leaving living quarters had been questioned.
McKenna said that legalizing the current undocumented workforce is important not only to accommodate the law but also because there aren't domestic American workers who will take its place.
"The industry's not using undocumented workers because they're cheaper," McKenna said. "The case is, there's nobody else who can or will do this work. These workers are risking personal safety and their family's well-being for the opportunity to work here." CVM
For more information, go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ to see the current framework of the Frist bill and the AgJOBS amendment (Amendment 3209 of Senate bill 2454, Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security). Also contact your grower associations for the latest news on how immigration reform legislation will affect your business.