Growers, farm workers say immigration raids scaring away labor

Updated 3:34 pm, Tuesday, May 9, 2017

WASHINGTON — Growers and farmworker unions said Tuesday that a federal immigration crackdown in rural towns is scaring away workers and forcing cutbacks in production of hand-harvested produce.

The comments came as part of a push for a long-shot bill by California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris to revive Feinstein’s 2013 “blue-card” visa proposal that would provide legal status and a path to citizenship for farmworkers.

“Wherever I go in California — I was just up in the wine industry — when I talk to dairy farmers, when I talk to small farmers in the Bay Area, even some in the Central Valley, they tell me they can’t find workers,” Feinstein said on a conference call with reporters. “That workers are scared, that they’re afraid they’re going to be picked up and deported, that they have disappeared.”

Feinstein said growers tell her they are looking to set up operations in Mexico, but “that’s not the answer. The people who feed us should have an opportunity to work here legally.”

Shah Kazemi, owner of Watsonville’s Monterey Mushrooms, which has operations in several other states, said a federal immigration raid on a neighboring grower in Pennsylvania had scared away his workers. Kazemi said that the shortages have forced him to cut production 12 percent in California and 15 percent in Illinois, and that efforts to mechanize harvests of the tender plant have proved unsuccessful so far.

Feinstein’s office, using a UC Davis estimate, said 70 percent of California’s 560,000 farmworkers are in the country without authorization. Her bill, the Agricultural Worker Program Act, would grant “blue card” legal status to farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in both 2015 and 2016. If they continue working on farms for at least 150 days a year over the following three years, or 100 days a year for the following five years, they would be eligible for permanent residency.

The bill is similar to one that Feinstein attached to a 2013 immigration overhaul that passed the Senate but died in the House. Its chances of passage are bleak, given stout opposition to expanded immigration in the GOP-controlled Senate, House and White House.

The 2013 Feinstein bill was part of a compromise Feinstein brokered between the United Farm Workers union and California growers. Arturo Rodriguez, president of the union, said he is confident growers will support the new version.

Kazemi said he pays farmworkers an average of $16 an hour plus benefits. An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found the average farmworker in the state earns about $30,000 a year for full-time work, about half the state average.

UC Davis farm economist Daniel Sumner said farmworker wages have been rising recently, “and we project in California they will continue to rise.” Sumner said farm wages in some regions of the state are now in the $15-an-hour range, although wages in the Central Valley tend to be lower than on the coast.

Growers said they have not seen systematic federal raids on farms despite the Trump administration’s stepped-up enforcement. Rodriguez said that in California, unions have an agreement with growers to direct federal agents to the farm’s administrative office before allowing them in the fields.

Rodriguez said the alarm stems from the presence of federal agents in rural towns. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “is very prevalent within the communities where farmworkers live” throughout the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys, Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t take much to spread alarm.”

Growers have complained of worker shortages for many years. In addition to raising wages and pleading with Washington to ease legal entry for laborers, growers have expanded operations to Mexico and mechanized harvests of some crops such as nuts. Some produce remains too delicate for machines, however. Rodriquez said growers are experimenting with labor-saving methods such as growing strawberries on tables so that workers don’t have to stoop to harvest them.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., is introducing a companion bill in the House. He said Americans face a choice of admitting foreign workers to grow food domestically, or importing food from abroad.

“It’s pretty simple,” Gutiérrez said. “Foreign hands in foreign countries, or foreign hands in our own.”

Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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