Uncertainties for Workers, Growers : Immigration Act Creates Hopes, Fears on Farms

Times Staff Writer

"You know what this is?" asked Don Laub, pointing at a radio scanner mounted under the dashboard of his pickup truck.

Laub was driving along a road between two of his vineyards. Nearby, working in the vast fields, a few dozen farm laborers--mostly illegal aliens--were pruning the dark, bare grapevines that stood like an army of gnarled and stunted crucifixes, arms entwined, rank after rank, stretching toward the bleak winter horizon of the San Joaquin Valley.

"The only thing we use that scanner for is the Border Patrol," Laub explained. "We can tell from listening to them where they are. We take defensive action. Number one, we take our people out of the field. This is the only way we could get our crops harvested and protect our people."

But Laub is now hoping that all of that is in the past because of special agricultural provisions in the new Immigration Reform Act that are supposed to help him legalize his work force and prevent disruptive raids on his ranch by the U.S. Border Patrol. "It's going to be an obsolete piece of equipment," he said of his scanner.

Not everyone, however, is as optimistic as Laub, who as president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and a member of the Farm Labor Alliance helped to shape the landmark law.

"There isn't a way in heck it's going to work," said Fresno raisin grape farmer Elmer Skoegard, who fears that once undocumented farm workers gain legal status, they will find other jobs and the crops will rot in the fields.

Indeed, among farmers, laborers, government and private agencies there is widespread confusion and anxiety, as well as a mixture of optimism and foreboding, over the immigration law, which was signed by President Reagan Nov. 6.

Whether the law will help farm workers or hurt them in the long run remains a subject of hot debate. Some growers say the changes come at a bad time and are apprehensive that they will aggravate the long-term economic problems on the farm.

It is generally agreed that without inclusion of the complex agricultural provisions, farming interests in the West--where most illegal farm laborers work--had the political muscle to kill the bill, which also offers amnesty to millions of non-farming aliens and imposes sanctions on businesses that knowingly hire illegals.

Treated More Generously

And farmers of "perishable" crops and their seasonal workers are treated more generously under the law than any other employers or employees in the country. (See accompanying box.)

For example, an employer who uses seasonal field workers to grow and harvest perishable crops and hires illegal aliens isn't subject to fines or jail terms, even for repeated offenses--except for out-of-the-country recruitment--until 18 months after the farm worker application period begins June 1.

In addition, it is much easier for farm workers, who have to show that they worked 90 days in the fields, to gain residence status than for non-agricultural workers.

The law also sets up a controversial four-year program called "replenishment" to determine whether a shortage of farm workers occurs after the legalization process. If such a shortage is found to exist, based on a complicated formula, foreign workers may be admitted to work in perishable agriculture beginning Oct. 1, 1989, and are eligible to apply for permanent resident status after working 90 days a season for three years. The program ends in October, 1993.

Limits Border Patrol

The act limits the activities of the U.S. Border Patrol by requiring agents to obtain search warrants before raiding fields in search of undocumented workers, except near the border, which the INS interprets to mean within 25 miles of the border.

One of the central sources of confusion in the agricultural provisions is the term "perishable." Congress specifically included seasonal farm work related to fruits and vegetables in this category, but left the definition of "other perishable commodities" to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It's important because, depending on how broadly we define that, it has an implication . . . as to who will be eligible to apply for legalization under the program," said Ewen W. Wilson, a deputy assistant secretary of agriculture.

Department of Agriculture officials are being beseeched by everyone from timber cutters to sheep ranchers to be included as growers of perishable commodities.

Crucial Definition

Wilson said he hopes to have a preliminary definition of the term by the end of this month, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the lead agency in implementing the law, wants this crucial definition sooner so that preliminary guidelines can be published. The INS is now using a working definition that includes virtually all agricultural products other than animals and timber.

Stan Lester raises peaches, apricots, cherries and walnuts in his orchards near the Northern California town of Winters. Up to 75% of his workers are illegal aliens and he thinks that most will qualify for legalization under the agricultural provisions of the law--depending on definitions.

But Lester doesn't know if walnuts will be included as a perishable commodity. If some of his workers put in 60 days in apricots and 30 days in walnuts in the year before May 1, 1986, do they meet the 90-day criterion?

"I'm not sure about that," Lester said.

At the same time, he does not believe that the workers whom he hires in his packing house will be eligible since the qualifying work apparently must involve cultivation and harvesting, not processing.

No Intention of Losing Crop

Still, Lester's foreman, Don Jordan, said he has no intention of losing a crop, law or no law.

"Everybody's going to do the best they can," Jordan said. "But when it comes right down to the wire and it's a question of you've got a few hundred thousand dollars invested in this crop of apricots, do we pack it with illegals or do we let it fall on the ground while trying to get legal people? I would think people would be able to understand the farmer is in a bad enough situation as it is."

Undocumented farm workers, notoriously underpaid and widely abused, are also in a bad enough situation as it is, and now there is confusion throughout the fields and orchards of California.

Eutiquio Palmerin, 26, of Guanajuato, Mexico, was pruning in one of Lester's orchards recently. Previously he worked digging potatoes in Nevada. Palmerin has been in the United States for at least two years, but said he doesn't understand the new law and doesn't know if he qualifies for legal resident status.

"All I do is keep working," he said, so that he can send money home to his family.

Calls to Immigration Center

El Concilio Immigration Project in Fresno has been receiving 75 to 100 phone calls a day from farm workers asking about the law, according to Rosemary Moreno, immigration adviser, who tells the callers to collect every bit of documentation they can in order to prove past employment and residency.

One difficulty the workers face is that some employers, especially farm labor contractors, frequently pay in cash, keeping no records, Moreno said.

And, she said, several farm workers have come into the office seeking help because they were threatened with being fired from their jobs unless they could produce documents showing that they are in the country legally even though the application process for farm worker legalization doesn't begin until June.

Ironically, the INS will issue a temporary work permit to aliens who are apprehended and can make a reasonable claim that they will qualify for legalization. But no such permits are available to aliens who voluntarily report to an INS office.

'Really No Leadership'

"I think there's really no leadership," Moreno complained. "They take the time and trouble to go down there and Immigration says, 'We don't know nothing.' "

"We can't have millions of people coming in for work authorization prior to setting up the (legalization) mechanism," responded Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington. "I don't want to call it a Catch 22, but at the same time we're in a situation where we can't handle their applications."

Organizations as widely divergent as the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Farmworker Justice Fund, advocates for agricultural laborers, see increased problems for field workers because of the law.

"I think the agricultural provisions are a total giveaway to the growers," said Roger Conner, executive director of the Washington-based FAIR, a coalition of liberals and conservatives advocating tighter immigration policies. "It's going to create an enormous oversupply of workers in the field."

Reverse Prediction

While most estimates put the number of general amnesty applicants at up to 4 million and the special farm worker applicants at no more than 500,000, Conner predicted the reverse.

"I suspect that more people will apply for the (agricultural) amnesty than for the basic amnesty in the bill," he said, "because it's so much easier to get. . . .

"Farm wages will fall," he continued. "Productivity in agriculture will slow down. The numbers of new immigrants added to the cities where they're going to have to be taken care of in some way is going to be greatly enlarged. . . . I think this is going to turn out to be the single worst piece of legislation for American farm workers in the history of the United States."

"Our position," said Kristine Poplawski, litigation director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, also based in Washington, "is that the bill is not good for farm workers on the whole. While it holds certain little plums, for the most part it is going to make life more difficult for farm workers."

Critical of Provision

Poplawski is particularly critical of the so-called replenishment provision that would allow importation of guest workers if it is determined that a shortage of farm laborers exists.

"It is a sort of acknowledgment by Congress," she said, "that the agricultural employer does not provide wages or working conditions which anybody who has any other alternative would accept."

But there is optimism within other divergent organizations that the agricultural provisions will work. Both the the Farm Labor Alliance, a coalition of Western grower organizations formed to lobby Congress during debate over the immigration act, and its chief adversary, the United Farm Workers union, express hope.

"It is a compromise," said J. Roy Gabriel, lobbyist for the Farm Labor Alliance and legislative director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "We found ourselves on the same side as people who had been our adversaries in the past."

Gabriel is in favor of the replenishment provision because "we don't know what's going to happen three or four years down the road," but he does not think that farm workers will desert the fields en masse seeking other jobs once they gain legalization.

"Where are they going to seek them?" he asked. "Are they going to go into downtown Los Angeles? Are there all kinds of jobs there just waiting for them?

"Obviously, we did not like the idea of having to become the policemen for the government in having to check the legal status of everybody," Gabriel added. "We don't like the idea of civil and criminal penalties. But we recognize Congress' concern relative to getting some control of the borders."

'Definitely Can Work'

Dolores Huerta, first vice president of the United Farm Workers, said of the agricultural provisions: "I think it absolutely, definitely can work. . . . We have made the decision that we are going to cooperate with the program."

The United Farm Workers, she said, plans to help aliens fill out applications for legal status through programs at the union's Martin Luther King Campesino centers. A number of observers said the union stands to be strengthened by the law since legal workers will be more apt to fight for their interests.

Huerta doesn't think that the replenishment provision will ever be used because of a high unemployment rate among farm laborers. "We have a lot of farm workers in the Delano area who are working in convalescent homes," she said. "And even that is part time."

Though she thinks that the legalization program has a chance of working, Huerta remains skeptical that growers will provide necessary documentation to workers.

Eager to Help

But many growers say they are eager to help their workers become legal residents in order to provide themselves with a loyal, legal work force now and in order to show, for replenishment purposes in the future if necessary, that there once was a large number of farm workers who left agriculture.

"What better management tool do you have than to help get these people legalized that are qualified?" grape farmer Laub asked. "That's the best friendship you can make with these people right now. . . . Get them so that they're not scared to go into an INS office. Get them to where they trust you."

Laub is going back through his work records and issuing all his employees who qualify a letter showing that they worked for him during the required time periods so they will not be deported if they are picked up by immigration agents. He also hopes that grower organizations will be among the agencies designated by the government to help aliens fill out legalization applications.

Growers' Responsibility

"We think it's the growers' responsibility," Laub said. "Because even though we needed the workers, and needed them desperately to harvest our crops all during these years . . . we were a part of that illegal alien problem.

"It can't be like it was in the past anymore," he added. "The majority of the people in the United States don't want it like it was. What they want is some control over our borders. And amen to that."

But observers from all points of the political spectrum--from reformist farm worker advocates to hard-nosed farmers--do not think that any legislation will halt the flow of illegal aliens from south of the border without some sort of joint economic effort between the United States and Mexico.

"There is an unresolved immigration problem and . . . economic relations problem between the United States and Mexico that we're all going to have to face within the next 20 years," said Mark S. Schact, a California Rural Legal Assistance lobbyist who helped write the agricultural provisions of the law.

Skoegard, the raisin grape farmer in Fresno, put it more simply: "If I was in Mexico and my family was starving, I'd do exactly as those people are doing."

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