Image: Migrant farmers
Paul Connors  /  AP file
A climate of fear is spreading among undocumented immigrant workers, causing turmoil in industries dependent on their labor.
updated 10/26/2007 2:37:20 PM ET 2007-10-26T18:37:20

Maureen Torrey, an 11th-generation farmer in the rural town of Elba, N.Y., has been losing sleep. Just as rows of cabbage and winter squash stand ready for harvest on her 11,000 acre farm, she can't find enough workers to bring in the crops. She needs about 350 workers and is 70 short of that number. "I wake up at 3:30 in the morning and my mind doesn't shut off," she says.

The problem, she says, is fear. Torrey Farms, a 14-crop vegetable farm located an hour east of Buffalo, has been raided twice since last October, when she says immigration officials kicked in the doors of workers' housing and apprehended 34. In August, officials arrested seven workers and 14 more fled the area. Amid continued talk of a federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants, she's afraid still more of her workforce will flee to less hostile terrain. With a population of about 9,000, the town of Elba, "Onion Capital of the World" to locals, may not have the manpower to replace them.

"With all the raids, people get scared and leave, and I don't blame them," says Torrey. She says now rumors are running rampant that another sweep is planned for Nov. 15. "It's terrible. This is the worst I've seen."

A climate of fear is spreading among undocumented immigrant workers, causing turmoil in industries dependent on their labor. In August the Homeland Security Dept. announced that employers would be required to terminate workers who fail to produce valid Social Security numbers. Implementation of the new rule is delayed pending the outcome of a lawsuit brought against the government by the umbrella labor union group, the AFL-CIO.

But while the new rule has yet to take effect, its impact is already being felt by farmers like Torrey. An estimated three-quarters of agricultural workers in the U.S. are undocumented, and growers are starting to feel the paralyzing effects of losing their workforce. They say that unless the government implements workable reforms, the future of the U.S. as a food-producing nation is in jeopardy.

Import workers, or import food
Agriculture does not play the role it once did in the U.S. economy, of course. Though the amount of farmland used has remained fairly steady over the past century, changes to the structure of farms and improvements in productivity have cut the number of people involved dramatically. In 1900, for example, 41% of the U.S. population was employed in agriculture, while that number now stands at less than 2%. Farmers hire workers for about 3 million agricultural jobs each year, but only one-quarter of that workforce is legally authorized. Agriculture also makes up a lower share of the U.S. gross domestic product than ever, accounting for less than 1%.

Still, farm advocates say that immigrant workers are allowing U.S. farmers to compete in a fierce global marketplace, and that losing the workforce means losing domestic sources of food. "The choice is simple: Do we want to import workers or import food?" says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

U.S. consumers may see little or no effect from the crackdown, but farmers like Torrey certainly will. Losing farm labor in the U.S. is likely to result in a shift of market share to foreign producers from domestic ones, rather than much change in food prices. "Farmers all over the world are salivating at the prospect that we won't be able to produce here," says James Holt, an agricultural labor economist. "They are more than happy to produce for us."

The chief issue in lost U.S. production, say Holt and others, is security. "What's at stake here is not prices, but food safety," he says. Torrey and other farmers agree. "We need to wake up to the realities of food safety and security issues," says Torrey. "A country not in control of its food supply is a weak nation."

While some employers of immigrants fear the limelight, the 55-year-old Torrey is unabashedly vocal in her opposition to the government's proposed crackdown. She set up the Web site, which allows farmers to sign a petition and make donations in support of the AgJobs bill (S. 1645/ H.R. 3142). She also testified before Congress on the issue. The bill, currently being debated in Congress, would streamline the H-2A farm worker visa program and also allow workers a path to permanent resident status.

"Every day I'm picking what crops my crew should tend to because I don't have enough workers for all of them," says Torrey. "We need Congress to act before the end of the year; farmers are in a crisis."

Many agriculture experts agree. On Oct. 4, farmers and economists testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives' Agriculture Committee to plead their case for reform. "The U.S. agricultural industry is in the midst of a labor crisis, the resolution of which will determine whether U.S. producers…are more than marginal participants in U.S. and global markets," said Holt in his testimony in support of AgJobs.

While AgJobs is debated, some growers are advocating more employer-friendly regulations. The Bush administration is currently rewriting federal regulations, to accommodate employers' needs, that forgo the promise of permanent residency for agricultural workers. The Homeland Security Dept., State Dept., and Labor Dept. are involved in that effort, which was announced alongside the call in August to crack down on workers with suspect Social Security numbers.

It is unclear how much progress Congress can make on immigration reform before it lets out for the year in mid-November. As farmers like Torrey are pushing for AgJobs, other employer groups disappointed by the failure of comprehensive immigration reform in June are stepping up efforts to pass narrower reforms. For example technology companies including IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Oracle, are pushing for more visas for skilled workers, while tourism and hotel groups advocate for more non-farm, unskilled visas.

Pay is not the problem
One question in the background of the debate is why employers do not raise wages to avoid legal problems and attract a native-born workforce. But unlike other industries that might attract more workers with greater pay — such as nursing and segments of the technology industry — it is not clear that raising wages for agricultural work would attract Americans to these jobs. Between 1990 and 2006, wages in agriculture have increased 54%, from an average of $6.12 per hour to $9.44 per hour (both figures are in 2006 dollars). Yet shortages remain common.

Employers and their advocates say that the fact that wages have increased so much and workers are still scarce is evidence that pay is not the problem. "This is not just about wages," says Regelbrugge. "Who wants to get up 3 a.m. and milk the cows? It's not a lifestyle many Americans opt for, especially when there are more comfortable alternatives."

Others argue that raising wages would undoubtedly attract more workers. "Labor shortages are created by employers," says Ana Avendano, director of the immigrant worker program for the AFL-CIO. "Employers say they can't find workers, but look at the conditions they are offering. Some of them are atrocious."

But Torrey says she offers good working conditions, and provides housing and a 401(k) plan for her workers. Workers start at $7.15 an hour, and the average wage on the farm is $10.95 to $11.95 per hour. "It doesn't matter if I raise wages," says Torrey. "We just don't have the population base. There's no one out there."

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