Local ag industry leaders are optimistic that Trump’s focus on immigration could lead to meaningful reform, though Congressional partisanship could be an obstacle. File Photo

published on February 20, 2018 - 12:07 PM
Written by David Castellon

For years, lawmakers have talked about reforming U.S. immigration policies without doing much to address the problems in the system.

That has left Tom Barcellos frustrated.

Like many in the agriculture industry, immigration reform is a priority for Barcellos, who operates a dairy and farm west of Porterville, because California’s ag industry depends heavily on foreign-born workers — both those working legally in the U.S. and those without legal authorization to work here.

In recent years, an improving Mexican economy combined with tighter security at the border and growing worries of being caught in U.S. immigration raids has reduced the number of potential ag laborers crossing over, making it harder for growers, packers and ranchers to fill jobs here — some to the point that they’ve had to leave fields partially harvested because they didn’t have enough labor.

Recent immigration enforcement efforts at a handful of agribusinesses in the Valley exacerbate the need for reform.


Immigration a Trump priority

Barcellos said he’s optimistic this could be the year that Congress and the Senate could finally pass substantive immigration reform, something that they haven’t been able to do since the Reagan era.

The reason, he said, is because President Donald Trump has indicated immigration as a priority, Barcellos said.

As such, “I think we are closer to having this happen then we have ever been before,” he said, adding he believes for Trump, immigration reform is “part of his mission, because he thinks it needs to be done.

“I don’t agree with everything he’s done — and I wish he’d quit tweeting — but I think he wants to do right by the people.”

There are many who don’t share Barcellos’ optimism that full immigration reform will happen this year, though some see a agreement on some form of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and a border protection plan as being more likely.

The problem is this is an election year, and trying to solve the full array of U.S. immigration challenges — highly heated issues — could be more than what politicians running for re-election want to address this year, said Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

But if federal lawmakers do take up the challenge this year, he and others tied to the ag industry in the Valley and the rest of the state have suggestions on what those reforms should include.


A wish list

First off, they need to understand why this issue is so important to the industry that feeds the nation.

“Somewhere in the area of 90 percent of California’s [agricultural] workforce is made up of foreign-born employees,” said Jacobsen, adding that of those, it’s estimated that 70 to 80 percent are improperly documented.

“Many of these individuals have worked years if not decades in the industry.”

Those workers need to be addressed with a program that allows them to continue working here under some sort of legal status so they aren’t subject to arrest and deportation. Their status will be safe so long as they meet the conditions allowing them to work here and don’t have any serious criminal violations, said Jacobsen and others in the ag industry contacted by the Business Journal.

“We want people to be able to continue to work, not to have them uproot their families” trying to avoid immigration agents, added Brian Little, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau.

Guest workers are key

“The other thing we need is a practical and workable way top get a future flow of workers,” said Little, noting that the current program, H-2A, is a such a highly bureaucratic, costly process that it often just doesn’t work — particularly for farmers in California who produce a wide swath of specialty crops with varying seasons that don’t work well in the timeframes of applying to the federal program.

Little and others in the industry said a guest worker program — which could include a highly retooled H-2A — also needs to be part of immigration reform, so workers can come into the U.S., work for a few months or even a year or two at a time, and then return to their home countries.

“We need a simpler model,” said Little, adding that the Farm Bureau has proposed a program managed by the U.S, Department of Agriculture in which businesses disclose the number of workers they need, and the foreign workers would petition the agency for visas to come here and fill those jobs.

Even if lawmakers decide to fully take on immigration reform this year, whether anything substantive could pass remains a big question mark, because their positions on the issue are so mixed.


Partisanship abounds

Joel Nelsen, president and CEO of California Citrus Mutual, the Exeter-based nonprofit trade association representing about 2,500 citrus growers across the state, said California’s congressional and Senate delegates cover the gamut of attitudes on immigration, from ultra liberals who support forgiving undocumented workers for coming here illegally and granting them amnesty with paths to citizenship to ultra conservatives “who want to build a [border] wall and penalized people here [illegally] and make them go home before they can come back.”

“The idea is to strengthen the middle and make them the majority,” Nelsen said.

Those needs are paralleled in the construction, hospitality and other industries that depend highly on immigrant workforces, he noted.


ICE steps up enforcement

The issue hit home this week amid news reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents plan to inspect employee records at Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, part of a series of notifications sent to 77 businesses from Bakersfield to the Oregon border that their employment records would be inspected.

ICE officials reported no arrests or detentions so far, and Bee Sweet officials wouldn’t confirm news reports that anywhere from 40 to 90 people had stopped coming to work there as a result of the agency’s actions.

“ICE Deputy Director Tom Homan previously stated that he has directed Homeland Security Investigations to step up worksite enforcement — to include conducting more I-9 audits in furtherance of pursuing more criminal investigations,” states an email from ICE spokesman James Schwab.

“The actions taken this week reflect HIS’s stepped-up efforts to enforce the laws that prohibit businesses from hiring illegal workers. HSI’s worksite enforcement strategy is focused on protecting jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed, eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce and strengthening public safety and national security.”


Displacement myth

It’s important for politicians and the public to know that guest worker and amnesty programs — at least for the ag industry — don’t generally take jobs from American workers, noted Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for Western Growers, an Irvine-based trade association for the fresh produce industries in California, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

“The most important thing to know is that agriculture has depended on a foreign workforce for decades,” because those workers are willing to take jobs that Americans generally don’t want to do, he explained.

“We have jobs for everybody who wants them. We have more jobs than people who want the jobs,” Resnick said.

“We need to be able to maintain the workers we have now, stabilize our workforce,” and give them incentives to continue working ag jobs, which could include working for a certain period of time — possibly three to five years — in exchange for a visa, he said.

But this can’t be done piecemeal, said Nelson, explaining that some elements of reform wouldn’t work well for farmers if others aren’t in place.


Deal breakers

For example, he said, lawmakers seem intent of requiring employers to use E-Verify, an online method to checking instantly people’s legal status to work, unlike the current system in which employers can’t question workers’ status if they provide what appears to be valid documentation and Social Security numbers, which can be easily obtained fraudulently.

Without an amnesty program in place to allow undocumented workers to continue working, E-Verify could force farmers and others to fire huge numbers of workers.

George Radanovich, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association and a former congressman, said he’s not confident that federal legislators could come together and reform immigration any time soon.

But Trump could solve one of the biggest immigration problems on his own if he could negotiate a treaty or trade agreement with Mexico that includes a guest worker program, he said.

A trade agreement or an executive order doesn’t require a vote from Congress to ratify it, Radanovich noted.

As for whether the president might be willing to do that, considering the contentious relationship he has with Mexico, he said, “If he decides to do it, he can get away with anything.”

Radanovich added that such an agreement with Mexico works to Trump’s advantage, as it would eliminate the need for many Mexicans to illegally sneak into the U.S., which has been a presidential priority.

“If it works for agriculture, it can apply to every other industry, and it’s done.

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