Guest worker idea stuck in web of politics

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DELANO, Calif. — “You’d think agriculture would have Republican politicians on our side, but on this issue we don’t,” Kevin Andrew was saying as we toured some grape fields north of Bakersfield, where farmworkers were thinning vines.

Come harvest time, far more workers will be needed. And here’s the problem, as Andrew sees it:

There could be a looming labor shortage related to tight border security and other factors, including an improved Mexican economy. But GOP congressional reps, in particular, remain opposed to temporary legalized status and coming-and-going privileges for undocumented farmworkers.

“My older brother in Atlanta says I’m part of the problem for hiring these guys,” said Andrew. “And I say, ‘Well, who’s mowing your lawn, and when you go to Vegas, who’s cleaning your hotel room?’ Ag raises its hands and says we know we’re using undocumented workers, and we would love to have a program where we’re not doing that.”

Of course, growers have always wanted an endless supply of workers with the skills and stamina to do hard labor for minimum wage or close to it. But fears of a labor shortage are shining a light on a cast of strange bedfellows in California, with former aides to Presidents Nixon and Reagan lobbying to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows.

Ken Khachigian, a GOP consultant and former speechwriter for Nixon and Reagan, sent me a recent commentary on the topic written by a client named Tom Nassif, a former Reagan official and head of a trade group called Western Growers, which represents California and Arizona farmers. Nassif’s piece, which ran in the Wall Street Journal, asked why Congress bent over backward to streamline a guest worker program for foreign athletes, but refuses to make life easier for farmworkers.

The Detroit Tigers have a third baseman who can freely come and go from his native Venezuela, Nassif wrote, but a Watsonville grower can’t easily get a strawberry picker from Mexico.

It’s an interesting argument, but the cynic in me had a few questions. California has a rich garden but a dark history when it comes to the back-breaking contributions of those who harvest it. Is there really a labor shortage, or is that a scare tactic, as some critics bluntly charge, to maximize profits by exploiting foreign workers?

Depends on whom you ask. Some people argue that better compensation would put an immediate end to any labor shortage. But growers argue that weather and other factors make harvest times unpredictable, and with workers on the move through the seasons, it can be tricky to get labor when you need it. They also fear federal raids, and worry that the E-Verify program will be implemented to check citizenship status. If it is, growers say, 60% to 80% of the nation’s farmworkers could get hauled away.

In Selma, where he was thinning peach trees, a 53-year-old man named David climbed off a ladder and told me he hasn’t been back to Mexico to see his wife and 10-year-old son in six years. He’s got no papers, he said, and the border is too tight. As he’s heard it, coyotes are charging as much as $5,000, or roughly a quarter of what he earns in a year, and of course there are no guarantees of successful or safe crossings.

Growers in Delano, Selma and Bakersfield told me their employees are aging, younger generations are less interested in field work and native-born residents are still virtually impossible to recruit despite high unemployment across California.

A Bakersfield grower told me he’d just gotten off the phone with a labor contractor who was offering $3 above minimum wage and still couldn’t get the 400 workers he needed for a job in the Napa Valley, partly because housing costs so much there. Kevin Andrew told me there are times when his company will call a labor contractor and ask for 40 workers, but less than half arrive the next day.

“They always say yes, but then you’ll have maybe 17, 18 workers show up.”

Nassif fears that crops will be lost this year, leading to higher prices for consumers. He and directors from Western Growers made their annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital two weeks ago to plead their case, but they knew what to expect going in. Politicians always give them a story about why now is not the time for immigration reform, said Nassif, and this year both parties covered their tails with the cynical claim that nothing constructive can possibly happen in an election year.

Nassif said polls have indicated most Americans would favor a guest worker program. But Republicans won’t touch it because of “pressure from the far right,” Nassif said, particularly if Democrats insist that guest workers be offered a chance to apply for legal residency.

I called Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) to get the majority whip’s take on this, but a press deputy told me “he doesn’t have any availability this week.”

Nassif said his frustration with GOP representatives often leaves him with little to say, other than: “We’ve been supporting you all these years, and electing you, and when we want something, we have to go to the Democrats.”

Not that Democrats have been any more productive. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced a “blue card” proposal last fall, calling for a five-year guest worker program, but it died on the vine.

“I have tried for 10 years now to pass a bill called AgJobs … and it’s been one frustration after another,” Feinstein told me by phone from Washington, adding that she shares grower concerns about a possible labor shortage in one of California’s richest industries.

Whether there’s a shortage or not, the immigration system we have now is one of thinly veiled lies and blatant hypocrisies, and it doesn’t work well for anyone. Reasonable compromise is a lot to ask from unreasonable people, but that’s no reason to stop asking.

Next time on this topic, I’ll have more from Feinstein and others, including a former ally of Cesar Chavez, and I’ll share some thoughts on what growers can do to help their own cause.