Feinstein urges ICE to focus on criminals
By Christine Souza
With California harvests accelerating and farmers reporting chronic problems in hiring enough on-farm help, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week to focus immigration enforcement efforts on violent criminals, rather than on legitimate agricultural employees and their employers.
California farmers and agricultural organizations welcomed the action from Feinstein, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. During the past few years, farmers have faced rising shortages of qualified employees and many have had to change farming practices or cultivate fewer acres to be able to tend and harvest crops with a limited number of workers.
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said the state's farmers and ranchers have been advocating for a solution to the nation's broken immigration system and support an agricultural immigration program contained in legislation passed by the U.S. Senate in June. The bill contains an agricultural program that accounts for people who want to enter the U.S. to work on farms, as well as people who are already in the country and must go through a rigorous set of requirements to stay in the U.S.
Members of Congress returned from summer recess on Monday, and farm organizations said they would continue to urge the House to act on immigration measures this year.
"Senator Feinstein has been a champion of immigration reform and has worked hard to help farmers and ranchers find a solution to our labor shortages," Wenger said. "We appreciate her willingness to ask the Department of Homeland Security to concentrate on other enforcement priorities while we work to improve the system with a new agricultural immigration program."
Enforcement efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement can be disruptive to farms, according to San Diego County mushroom grower Gary Crouch, who recalled receiving a visit from ICE officials in 2012.
"Last year, we were visited by ICE and they gave us our subpoenas. They said, 'We would like all of your Form I-9s.' Somehow, word got out to the rest of our farm that ICE had been here," Crouch said. "The workers believed that ICE would get their addresses, go to their homes and pull their wives and babies out of their homes and deport them."
Crouch said by the time ICE officials returned for the follow-up visit, about 40 workers had walked off the job.
"A mushroom farm is like a dairy: You have to deal with mushrooms and every day you pick, pack and ship. I was a sinking ship and sinking rapidly," Crouch said. "There is no labor to do this physical work that we do on the farm."
In a letter to the Homeland Security secretary, Feinstein described the troubling feedback she has received from California farmers that ICE has continued to use I-9 worksite audits against agricultural employers, an issue she first raised with ICE last June.
"Many farmers and growers in California informed me that their business and livelihood are at risk due to a shortage of legal harvesters, pickers, pruners, packers, and farmworkers," Feinstein wrote. "As you can imagine, with approximately 81,000 farms in California, I am very concerned that these audits will result in significant harm to the agricultural industry and the state's overall economy."
CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service, said the ICE raids on agricultural operations "cause massive disruption to agricultural businesses wherever they happen."
"When ICE tells an employer that most of his employees are not employed legally, even though they were able to complete a Form I-9, that leaves the employer without a workforce and with no viable alternative to get one," Little said."The only alternative, the H-2A program, is so badly broken that very few California employers even try to use it. That's why we've worked so hard for so long to create a new agricultural worker program."
Little noted that Farm Bureau is surveying farmers and ranchers this year, to gauge the scope of ongoing employee shortages during harvest. The confidential, online survey is available on the Farm Bureau website at www.cfbf.com/employmentsurvey/.
A similar survey conducted a year ago found that 61 percent of respondents reported labor shortages of varying degrees, and that among responding farmers who grow labor-intensive crops such as fruits and vegetables, the proportion suffering shortages was even higher, at 71 percent.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.