J. Allen Carnes needed 200 workers for the onion harvest this year on 500 acres of South Texas fields. The onion business is big in the area, and with only two months to harvest, there's little room for delay.
But Carnes ended up with less than 100 workers and fell two weeks behind, with bits and pieces of the fields unpicked. His income fell about $150,000, a significant loss.
"It's become increasingly tight over the last three or four years," said Carnes, president of Winter Garden Produce in Uvalde, 80 miles west of San Antonio. "Companies are jockeying back and forth (for workers). Last year it was just short all around."
Growers say tightened border security and longer lines for day crossers have cut the numbers of farm workers who cross the border legally or illegally. Illegal immigrant workers who used to travel the country picking different crops as the seasons changed are hesitant to migrate for fear of being caught. And the lure of higher paid jobs with better working conditions, such as construction, are keeping some farm workers away.
And the labor shortage will only get worse until Congress tackles immigration reform, growers and worker advocate groups say. The House and Senate are at an impasse over proposed legislation and whether it should include an eventual path to citizenship and guest-worker program in addition to border enforcement.
Like others who employ migrant workers, Carnes checks employees' paperwork, but said some illegal immigrants probably end up working in his fields.
According to the Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, 53 percent of the hired crop labor force lacked authorization to work in the U.S. in 2001-02. Worker advocates and grower associations agree the actual figure is probably closer to 80 percent.
Three-quarters of the hired farm work force in the U.S. was born in Mexico. And more than 40 percent of crop workers were migrants, meaning they had traveled at least 75 miles in the previous year to get a farm job, the survey showed.
Carnes said he couldn't lure workers away from other fields with incentives like higher pay for the late-spring onion harvest because there just weren't enough workers to go around.
"We're seeing the wolf at the door," said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, referring to what he said is worsening shortages reported by many of the 300 growers, shippers and importers his organization represents.
But a spokesman for the United Farm Workers said farmers need to raise salaries to get workers.
Even if they start out in the fields, "the pay is so low, the benefits mostly nonexistent and the conditions so harsh that many workers don't stay," spokesman Marc Grossman said. "It's essentially minimum-wage work."
And that can be backbreaking, hot work, especially picking berries in the early summer sun.
Carnes said increased border security is keeping even legal day laborers from crossing the border because lines have lengthened.
"There becomes a point where the paperwork and time doesn't equal the money," Carnes said. "I think we just scared them off with all the talk about immigration and closing the borders."
The U.S. Border Patrol has caught well over 1 million people along the U.S.-Mexico border in the last three fiscal years, including the one set to end Sept. 30, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In 2003 alone, it caught just over 900,000 in the four border states.
Howard Rosenberg, an agricultural labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley, said while he's heard complaints about shortages for years, the concerns have worsened recently.
"It varies in how intensely it's felt and where it's felt and how much it's reported," Rosenberg said. "It is very difficult to tease out the realities from the perception."
Rosenberg said a border crackdown may not have as much to do with reductions as with the immigrant community spreading out geographically and to different industries.
"If people think that a crackdown on the border is keeping people away, how do they really know that?" Rosenberg asked. "There's still an awful lot of activity."
Growers and farm worker advocates say the beginning of a solution is the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2005, dubbed "AgJobs."
The bill would provide temporary legal status for farmworkers who can prove they worked at least 100 days during a certain period. The workers could apply for a green card if they work an additional 360 days in agriculture over the subsequent six years. A slightly modified version of AgJobs passed in May in the Senate's immigration reform bill, which the House has not yet voted on.
Without comprehensive immigration reform, growers will continue to move their operations south of the border, said Tim Chelling, a vice president of the Western Growers Association, which represents growers in California and Arizona.
"It's more than anecdotal; we know that they're down there to the tune of thousands and thousands of acres," he said.
Growers are "half out the door already," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the conservative New York-based Manhattan Institute think tank.
"A Mexican worker is going to pick these crops one way or the other, and the only question is whether they pick them here or across the border in Mexico," Jacoby said.