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New Era Begins for Agriculture, and for the INS : Growers Join Ranks of Those Who Face Sanctions in Hiring

Times Staff Writer

California’s $15-billion-a-year agriculture industry, long accustomed to an abundant supply of cheap workers, many of them undocumented, began to accustom itself this week to a new way of doing business.

As of Thursday, agricultural concerns, like virtually all other businesses nationwide, face a range of civil and criminal penalties for knowingly hiring illegal aliens. The so-called employer sanctions--intended to deter the hiring of undocumented workers--were a cornerstone of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed by Congress in 1986.

Although other industries have had to live with the new restrictions since June, 1987--hundreds of employers have already been fined for hiring illegal aliens--Congress generously acceded to the farm lobby’s request to defer enforcement until this month. No similar exemption was made for any other industry, a fact that reflects the political clout of Western growers, who were also successful in including a number of other favorable provisions in the new law.

‘A Brand-New Era’

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“It is a brand-new era for agriculture,” Harold W. Ezell, Western regional commissioner for the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said last week. “But it’s also a new era for the INS.”

The new era begins during the generally slack winter season, although many farming operations and nurseries in San Diego County and elsewhere in California operate year-round.

Future enforcement may well be particularly evident in San Diego County, which has a $500-million annual farming industry but also is the home base of more than 800 agents of the U. S. Border Patrol, the largest contingent nationwide for the INS enforcement arm, long noted for its sweeps through farms, packing sheds and other agricultural facilities. An additional 300 agents will join the force in coming months, many presumably attempting to control the huge undocumented farm-worker population of North County. (The patrol opened a new office in San Marcos in June.)

The massive patrol presence explains why San Diego has led the nation in the number of fines against non-agricultural employers who hire illegal aliens. There is a palpable fear that San Diego growers may bear the brunt of the agents’ zeal to enforce the new law.

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“We’ve always been under more scrutiny here,” said Charley Wolk, a Fallbrook grower who is president of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “What we’re concerned about is that we may be a target industry” for federal enforcement agents.

Immigration officials say they won’t single out agriculture; they cite an extensive campaign to educate growers about the new requirements. But authorities also vow to enforce the new law fully.

A Cadre of Agents

“We’re going to treat them (growers) like everyone else,” Dale W. Cozart, chief Border Patrol agent in San Diego, said last week. “And now the law treats them like everyone else. . . . Stations are located in key agricultural areas, and we have already developed a cadre of agents experienced in sanctions enforcement.”

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Complete enforcement of the sanctions arrived a day after the 18-month application deadline for an amnesty program specifically designed for field hands. Western growers, fearing labor shortages, insisted on the inclusion of the amnesty initiative--considerably more liberal than the general amnesty program--in the 1986 immigration law. Congress complied.

More than 1.1 million people signed up for the farm-worker amnesty program nationwide, including about 50,000 in San Diego County. Nevertheless, agricultural representatives fear that many newly legalized workers will quickly abandon the fields for better-paying jobs in other industries, leading to a shortage of legal laborers. The harvest season of 1989 should be the “litmus test” of any such shortage, said Clark Biggs, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agricultural organization.

“This is an unknown for everyone,” said Wendy Dietrich Benz, executive director of the county farm bureau, an industry group.

If a shortage does develop, however, agriculture still has a few aces up its sleeves--though the cards aren’t likely to help until the latter part of 1989 at the earliest.

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For one thing, Congress created an emergency replenishment program that allows growers to bring in foreign labor starting next fall in the event of a certified labor shortfall. Lawmakers also expanded and expedited an existing “guest-worker” program, known as the H-2 initiative, but Western growers haven’t expressed much interest, viewing the program as burdensome and difficult to manage.

Topic of Great Disagreement

Whether the new law will prevent farmers from continuing to hire undocumented laborers is a matter of great disagreement--as is the overall effectiveness of the employer-sanction approach. Despite the sanctions, critics note that immigration authorities still record thousands of arrests of illegal aliens in border areas each day. (Almost 1 million apprehensions took place in the most recent fiscal year.) And the economy of Mexico, where most of the migrants originate, remains mired in a deep funk.

Nonetheless, INS officials and industry representatives publicly express confidence that farmers facing fines of up to $10,000 per alien and jail terms of up to six months will no longer be so eager to hire undocumented workers.

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“I think a lot of growers are saying, ‘If I can get a legal, stable work force working for me, then I’m ahead of the next guy,’ ” said Barbara Buck, spokeswoman for the Western Growers Assn., which represents 2,700 growers, packers and transporters in California and Arizona.

Others aren’t so sanguine. It is too easy for growers and workers to circumvent regulations by use of false documentation, many argue. Even the INS acknowledges that its limited resources require the agency to rely largely on voluntary compliance by employers. Moreover, critics say that legal residents wouldn’t work for the low wages and difficult conditions prevalent in the fields.

“There’s no shortage of documented workers, but the problem is that agriculture hasn’t paid them a decent wage and improved working conditions,” said Mary Lopez, director of the Martin Luther King Farm Worker Fund, which works with the United Farm Workers of America. “None of the other labor laws in California have been enforced; why should anyone believe they’re going to enforce this one?”

The sanctions law is predicated on a new reporting requirement imposed on employers.

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Farms and other agricultural concerns are now obligated to fill out--and produce for INS inspectors--a form for each employee hired as of Dec. 1. On the form, employers must note documentation from the workers proving their identity and legal status in the United States. There is no requirement, however, that farmers or any other employers independently verify the documents submitted by the workers, an omission that many consider a critical loophole, especially considering the proliferation of phony immigration and identification papers.

Since June, 1987, immigration inspectors have been routinely checking with non-farm employers and requiring that they provide the forms. (All employers except for agricultural concerns must show forms for all employees hired as of Nov. 6, 1986, the date the immigration statute was signed.) Most firms have complied with the inspections voluntarily, officials said, but in some cases authorities have acquired subpoenas.

Complicating enforcement efforts in agriculture is a recent legal modification that outlaws a practice that growers have long viewed as an irritant: unannounced field searches and sweeps by immigration agents. Congress included in the 1986 law a little-publicized measure that requires that authorities have search warrants or owners’ permission before conducting such sweeps. The measure was included at the behest of growers--and over the protests of the law-enforcement community.

“I think it’s certainly going to create somewhat of a burden,” acknowledged Cozart, the Border Patrol chief in San Diego. But he said the new legal barrier should not be insurmountable, noting that officers will readily request search warrants if necessary to verify violations by growers.

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