Agricultural experts say stepped up efforts to crack down on illegal immigration is having an unwanted effect on American farmers. Some claim recent raids and threats to prosecute companies that hire undocumented workers have resulted in a severe labor shortage that could force some farms out of business and lead to higher food prices. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Thousands of undocumented immigrants have been arrested or deported following recent raids in at least seven major U.S. cities. Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff says the message is that illegal immigration will not be tolerated. "For many years, the way we dealt with illegal immigration was we paid political lip service to toughness. I think we've got to show the public that we are serious about enforcing the laws as they currently are written."
And the enforcement appears to be working -- perhaps a bit too well. Estimates show more than half of all farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants. Without the steady source of cheap labor they provide, Wisconsin's Agricultural Secretary Rod Nilsestuen says many farms would be unable to function. "If you took away Hispanic labor from agriculture and from dairying in Wisconsin, we'd be in crisis. There's no two ways about that."
But it is not just farms that rely on undocumented workers. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the city would quote "collapse if they were deported." Even popular destinations such as Las Vegas would suffer. Donald Taylor is head of the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union. "Las Vegas would stop, we would stop in our tracks. They do everything from cleaning a room, to serving a cocktail, to cooking a meal, to serving a meal, to cleaning the casino floor."
In California's San Joaquin Valley, the current 20 percent labor shortfall could lead to fields left unpicked, and tomatoes rotting on the vine. Luawanna Hallstrom is with the California Farm Bureau Federation. "This is like a time bomb just ready to go off."
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Some states have taken matters into their own hands. Washington state has begun airing commercials aimed at luring farm workers -- with promises of higher wages and better lifestyles.
United Food Worker's Arturo Rodriguez says the workers are there but many are in hiding. "The reality is that we do have a sufficient number of workers here to do the work. They just need to feel that they are protected, that their families are protected. And in that way they're going to continue working in agriculture."
The U.S. Labor Department says it is reviewing the farm worker visa program to look for ways to increase the flow of legal workers entering the country. But some fear the government's actions may be too late to salvage this year's harvest.