Farmers hope to work on immigration reform

Growers facing a dwindling supply of farmworkers are pressing U.S. lawmakers in hopes of influencing the outcome of immigration reform measures before Congress to ensure they have a work force in the future. Their efforts come as the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report last week that showed there are 4 percent fewer workers on American farms now than at this time last year. And last year's farm work force in the spring was already 10 percent smaller than the year before.

"We're for cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants and for homeland security," said Austin Perez, policy director for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group. "But if it doesn't have a guest worker program, and doesn't allow farmers to maintain a work force ... we'd be looking at a huge production loss." The majority of farmworkers are immigrants. California growers alone need 450,000 workers during peak harvest season. For farmers, a favorable outcome to the immigration debate will be one that continues to put workers in the fields picking everything from blueberries to watermelon.

"There are people out there now who are ready and willing to work, we just need a plan that lets them work," said Doug Mosebar, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and a farmer who grows hay, squash, flowers, pumpkins and beef cattle on a ranch in Santa Ynez. Farmers who would normally be spending spring days overseeing their fields are ferrying back and forth to Washington to lobby their representatives. Mosebar has visited Capitol Hill several times in recent months to make sure Congress keeps agriculture's needs in mind.

Voting records also suggest such efforts are paying off. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, had opposed a 2005 version of a bill allowing agricultural workers who had been here illegally to apply for residency, saying that as it was worded, it would be a "magnet for illegal immigration." She later reversed course, sponsoring an amendment approved in March by the Senate Judiciary Committee that creates a path to legalization for up to 1.5 million agricultural workers over five years, if they can prove they have been working in the fields and paying their taxes.

On Monday, the Senate shot down another amendment that would have set a wage floor for the 1.5 million newly legal workers, a measure that was opposed by several agriculture trade groups. California 's House Republicans largely supported a House bill that would increase enforcement along the border without creating a path for workers to come in legally. But Reps. Devin Nunes, George Radanovich and Bill Thomas, who represent largely agricultural districts, opposed it.

The House bill, approved in December, has no provisions to bring in new agricultural workers legally. It would also increase the fines for employers who hire undocumented immigrants from US$10,000 (7,800) to US$40,000 (31,000), and create a 700-mile (1,126-kilometers) fence along the border. That presents a scenario that keeps farmers like Mosebar up at night.

"This issue has taken on a lot of emotional weight, created a lot of polarization on both sides," he said. "Our representatives are trying to do the right thing, but sometimes they receive a lot of pressure from those who don't agree with the direction we're going." If the final legislation resembles that passed by the House, Kerry Whitson worries he will not be able to find the 125 workers he needs to harvest the plums, pluots, grapes and other fruit on his 900 acres (364 hectares) in Tulare County .

"I just don't see the answer being a deportation of millions of people," he said. "They're part of our community, our business, our families. There's a problem, and it needs to be fixed, but in a comprehensive, workable way, reports the AP.