PAYSON, Utah — There’s a good chance that the fresh tart cherries Southern Californians find at their grocers originated from Robert McMullin’s orchards at the base of the Wasatch Mountains.
The third-generation farmer provides 90% of the fresh sour cherries found in Southern California.
The hard-to-find fruit is prized by bakers and cooks. McMullin shook his head when he recalled how much fruit went unpicked during this year’s July harvest.
“We lost $300,000 on that deal because we didn’t have enough guys to pick,” he said.
McMullin’s plight illustrates how stalled efforts to revamp immigration laws have hit farmers nationwide. He relies on a federal program that brings in legal workers from Mexico to work his groves, but the program, which he calls expensive and inflexible, can’t always meet his needs. The system needs streamlining, he said.
A state guest-worker program that was supposed to go into effect this summer in Utah might have helped McMullin and other farmers searching for workers. But lawmakers delayed the program for two more years because they wanted to see whether Congress would pass an immigration overhaul first.
Utah mirrors a national trend of states holding back on passing immigration laws in hopes that the federal government will act on the issue, according to a study released this fall by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
It’s a far cry from 2011, when states enacted 162 immigration laws, many following Arizona’s controversial SB 1070.
By 2012, states had shrunk away from the immigration issue, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected key provisions of the Arizona law that June.
This year, 146 immigration laws have been enacted in 43 states and the District of Columbia.
California has led the nation in providing benefits to people who are in the country illegally. New laws would allow such immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and practice law, for example.
On the other end of the spectrum is Georgia, where officials this year expanded on a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration. State law now prevents people who are in the country illegally from obtaining public housing, driver’s licenses, state grants and loans.
Most states have taken a more nuanced approach to immigration law this year.
In the Southwest, for instance, Utah enacted legislation that excluded people who are in the country illegally from receiving new state scholarships.
At the same time, legislators created a provision in a law regarding abandoned property, allowing former tenants access to a property if they needed to retrieve documents about their immigration status.
In Virginia, legislators did not opt for sweeping laws like Georgia, but did ban people who are in the country illegally from obtaining concealed weapons permits.
Most noteworthy is that 24 states — double the number from previous years — passed resolutions asking the federal government to step in and take the reins on immigration, according to the report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Ann Morse, who helped prepare the report and heads the Immigrant Policy Project at the organization, says she hears this sentiment when she talks with state lawmakers from across the country.
“They say, ‘We can only do so much,’” she said. “They feel the government needs to come to the plate and finish the job.... Not acting on immigration reform is not a solution.”
Blanket enforcement laws — sparked by Arizona — are no longer popular with state lawmakers, especially because they can take millions of dollars to defend in court, said Gabriel J. Chin, professor of immigration law at the UC Davis School of Law.
“It’s pretty clear that, though it may satisfy a certain portion of the electorate, on the whole it’s counterproductive politically to demonize immigrants, even undocumented immigrants,” said Chin, who was a law professor at the University of Arizona when SB 1070 was passed. “So, I think the experiment in the SB 1070 type of involvement of immigration enforcement is over.”
Also, addressing immigration can be risky for some legislators.
Consider the experience in Utah. The state was ahead of its time when political, business, law-enforcement and religious leaders endorsed the 2010 Utah Compact — a declaration of five principles that sought to guide the discussion of immigration in the state in a more moderate tone, Morse said. The compact noted, for example, the value to society of keeping families together.
Some state lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle — didn’t get reelected after endorsing the compact and the bills it inspired.
Now, Utah leaders are timid about tackling immigration, said Jean Welch Hill, who was part of the compact and is a government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
To Robert McMullin, the farmer in Payson, the issue is clear: He doesn’t want to hire people who are in the country illegally. The government, he said, needs to act.
On a recent chilly autumn day, McMullin perused his cherry orchards and talked about what the lack of an immigration overhaul means to him and the average American.
“From my perspective, the only thing that is going to happen is that they are going to have less selection of fruit at a higher cost,” McMullin said. “There is going to be more waste and less fruit available.”