Video: Immigration debate hits the streets

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/4/2006 3:37:43 PM ET 2006-09-04T19:37:43

In the berry fields of Woodland, Wash, farmer Jerry Dobbins had to make a painful decision.  

"It's more than I can deal with," he says as he stands in a plowed field. "Yesterday, this was a strawberry field.  We couldn't pick it, because we didn't have enough labor. Today, we took it out."

Half the crop won't be harvested, Dobbins says, because about half of the migrant farm workers he expected this year — didn't come.

Roberto Morgado did, from Mexico, but he says other workers know the border is tighter now. And for those workers who do cross, many head to the booming construction industry. Why?

In California, farm field workers earn an average $9.93 an hour, compared to $15.94 for unskilled construction workers.

The shortage of farm labor is everywhere.

"We can't find Americans to do these jobs," says Bill Moncovich, who co-owns California Berry Farm. "We've tried. No one will listen."

And in Florida, tens of millions of dollars' worth of oranges are still on the trees. They'll fall, and shrivel.

"I have never known where we left fruit on the trees, never!" says Steve Sorrells, who owns a packing company. "And I've been in it since 1972."

Many farmers say they lost money this year. Crops simply withered and died  without enough people to harvest them. If this keeps up, those costs will have to be passed on at the supermarket.

"I would like to scream if it would do something about it," says Jerry Dobbins.

Farmers like Dobbins say they hope for a new federal guest worker program that is less expensive and less complicated than the current one.

"If the borders are closed and we don't have labor, we're out of business," says Bill Moncovich.

This year, only 29,000 foreign farm workers were granted visas. But there are an estimated 1.5 million illegal farm workers here now.

That's still not enough, farmers say, to get all the fruit off the trees in time.

"We need them more than we need the tractors," says Moncovich.

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