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July 24, 2013

US Farmers Keep Eye on Immigration Reform

by Elizabeth Lee

American farmers are experiencing a shortage of people to work their fields.  The workers they do have are largely from Latin America and in the United States with false documents.  Farmers say without immigration reform, both problems will continue.

Imperial Valley farmers call this the dead season.  Summer temperatures consistently stay above 38 degrees Celsius.  Not much is growing in the fields at the moment, but in the winter there will be lettuce and celery on the ground and in the spring, cantaloupes and watermelons.  

But even in the summer dead season, there is work for Francisco Saucedo.  He drives a tractor, tilling the field to prepare the land for planting in the autumn.  He lives in Mexico and wakes up at two in the morning everyday to beat the long lines at the border crossing, so he can start work at 6:00 am.

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“Right here, a dollar is a dollar.  But in Mexico it is 13 pesos.  So if I work over there, what I am doing right here [in U.S.,] I get paid about $6 dollars a day over there [in Mexico], Saucedo explained. But in the United States, Saucedo makes as much as $90 a day.  

Second generation farmer Larry Cox said growing and harvesting vegetables depends on migrants or day laborers from Mexico, but not enough of them are crossing the border. “We have had a chronic shortage of help almost for the last 10 years,” Cox stated.

Cox said it has been difficult getting visas to work in the United States, so many farm workers from Latin America would work with fake documents.  

Western Growers President Tom Nassif said there are approximately 11 million workers in the United States with false documents. “Of that 11 million, 1.2 million work in agriculture,” he stated.

Nassif has been working with lawmakers in Congress on immigration reform.  He supports the bill passed by the Senate that would legalize the workers who are already in the United States and eventually provides a path to citizenship.

The union representing the farm workers also supports the Senate bill.  The United Farm Workers Foundation’s Erica Lomeli said reform will improve the working conditions of many migrants who often work in harsh conditions and are sometimes exploited by their employers. “So they will have a right to stand up for themselves and not be intimidated or in many states be put in slave-like positions,” she explained.

The House of Representatives still has to pass its own version or versions of the bill before Congress votes on a final reform.  Growers and the farm workers union also want a guest-worker program, something farmers say will solve the labor shortage problem.  If reform does not happen, farm owner Jack Vessey said the labor shortage on farms in the U.S. will have a global impact. “If we can not get this harvested, it is not going to come from the U.S. anymore.  It is going to come from off shore.  It is going to come from somewhere else,” he said.

And consumers might have to pay a higher price for fruits and vegetables.