Farmers, Critics Divided Over Proposed Migrant Workers Bill

Farmers, critics divided over proposed migrant workers bill

By Jennifer Youssef
The Detroit News, October 17, 2009

Federal lawmakers are considering a bill that proponents say would help to stabilize the migrant work force on which Michigan agriculture depends.

The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act of 2009 grants undocumented, foreign migrant farm hands temporary resident status, giving farmers peace of mind knowing their employees won't be subject to raids and deportation, proponents say. Supporters also argue that with legal status, migrant workers would no longer have to suffer unfair treatment for fear of being deported.

But critics say granting undocumented migrant workers legal status won't solve the problem of work force instability because if farm hands choose to pursue more lucrative work, growers will be left in the lurch. They also argue the bill grants illegal immigrants amnesty.

'For farmers, this is a burning issue, especially at harvest time,' said Vera Bitsch, who specializes in human resources in agriculture at Michigan State University.

Farmers say they live in fear of raids and worker deportations, which can create labor shortages and result in crops going unharvested. In Michigan, where agribusiness generated $71.3 billion in 2008, that instability can be costly.

If it passes, the bill will legalize about 1.5 million undocumented agricultural laborers over five years. The bill also proposes making the federal H-2A program that gets foreign workers into the country legally less burdensome. It would allow illegal workers to apply for a blue card (temporary residency) and eventually get a green card (permanent residency).

Immigration reform is a priority for the Obama administration, but with so many other issues on the table, it's unclear when lawmakers will get to it. And, if a comprehensive reform of immigration is not reached, it's unknown if Congress will vote on the piecemeal bill, experts say.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Refugees had scheduled a hearing on the bill, supported by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, for Sept. 22, but it was delayed.

U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, while acknowledging migrant workers' contributions to agriculture, said he's 'very nervous' about giving workers who got here illegally permanent residency.

'I just think it's fundamentally wrong,' said Hoekstra, who is running for governor.

More than 200 groups and agencies support the bill, touting it as the best compromise between workers and employers to reach Congress in several years.
Impact on agribusiness

The loss of migrant workers would have a significant impact on Michigan's agribusiness industry, a 2006 report by Michigan State University found. If there were no migrant workers, the state would stand to lose about $272 million in the first year and up to $362 million over time in unharvested crops, decreased production and other problems that arise from a smaller work force, the study said.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture likes the bill because it will 'provide stability' to the agricultural work force, Director Don Koivisto said. Michigan has about 45,000 migrant workers annually to fill about 87,000 agricultural jobs.

A majority of the migrants — up to 80 percent — are from Mexico, said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform. The rest are from Central America and other countries, he said.

The jobs migrant workers do are vital to fruit and vegetable growers, said Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee, which likes the bill. They're needed to handpick 1 billion apples off trees in Michigan orchards; at least 90 percent of the 950 apple-growers in the state use migrant labor, she said.

Regelbrugge, also vice president of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscape Association, praised the bill.

'If we screw this thing up, it will be a tremendous blow to Michigan's economy,' he said. 'If Michigan (farms) have a stable labor supply, it will create economic activity.'
Critics say bill problematic

But, opponents say the bill will create more problems for farmers by allowing workers to move on to better-paying jobs once they become authorized.

'It's an amnesty,' said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. 'Granting green cards to workers won't help because once they get legal status, they won't stick around to do farm jobs.'

'(The bill) allows the agriculture industry to continue the practice of hiring people at exploitive wages,' Mehlman said.

All farm hands get paid an average of $10 an hour and the current law requires foreign workers to be paid more than U.S. citizens to ensure American workers get first dibs on jobs.

The bills are a farce, said Rick Oltman, national media director for Californians for Population Stabilization, a Santa Barbara-based agency whose purpose is to get the government to enforce immigration laws. He called them a 'window dressing' on behalf of politicians who want to appear as though they want reform, but, he pointed out, the bills have never passed both houses, even after several attempts.

'I view this as nothing more than Congress pandering to agribusiness,' Oltman said. 'The authors (of the bills) do it so they can say they supported this.'
Growers depend on migrants

Michigan growers say they depend heavily on migrant workers. Without his migrant work force, Fred Leitz of Leitz Farms LLC near Benton Harbor says he probably wouldn't be in business. His staff of 225 includes 200 migrants.

All his employees have documents and, although he knows some may not be here legally, he said he will hire them if they are willing to do the job. Employers are required to review workers' documents, but discrimination law prohibits them from questioning the documents' authenticity.

When Leitz advertises job openings to U.S. workers, they only want to drive tractors; no one wants to work in the fields, he said.

'If (migrant workers) aren't here, there are no replacements,' he said. 'I have no domestic workers willing to come in and pick this stuff. I would be bankrupt.'

Two years ago, even though thousands of Michigan residents were out of work, 15 percent of the state's asparagus crop, or about $2 million worth, had to be destroyed because growers couldn't find enough workers to pick it, said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. The asparagus board is not taking a stand on the bill because it is a quasi-governmental entity, Bakker said.

'It doesn't matter what the unemployment rate is, harvesting asparagus is not the type of work Michiganders are looking for,' he said. 'We need migrant workers.'

Legalizing the migrant work force would solve a lot of problems, said Virginia Ruiz, senior attorney for Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy organization. Because 50 percent to 75 percent of the workers are unauthorized, many are reluctant to speak up when they run into issues like unfair wages and poor working conditions, she said.

'We feel (the bill) is a reasonable compromise to resolve the problems with agricultural labor,' Ruiz said.


Farmers say fed immigration program is a burden
By Jennifer Youssef
The Detroit News, October 17, 2009