Every year, the Valicoff Fruit Company in the Yakima Valley dutifully sends off W-2 tax forms for its pickers. President Rob ­Valicoff says he requires legal identification from all his workers, but he knows IDs can be faked. Every year, his company expects some return mail from the Internal Revenue Service.

“Within two months, we’ll get a stack of ‘no match’ letters,” he said, which means he’s been hiring illegal immigrants.

But Valicoff probably gets fewer of those letters than some growers. For years, he’s been using the H-2A visa program, which brings legal guest- workers into the United States for temporary employment. H-2A workers comprise about 80 percent of his employees and bring stability to a work force that’s often in flux, he said.

However, Valicoff said the high costs of using the H-2A program put him at a competitive disadvantage. He would like to see the U.S. Congress tackle immigration reform to reduce the expense and hassle of obtaining legal workers.

Diane Kurrle, vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Apple Association, said that nationally some 70 to 80 percent of the agricultural labor force is made up of illegal aliens.

But the H-2A system hasn’t been a good alternative, she said. The paperwork is onerous, the process is expensive, and some farmers have complained that their workers arrive late.

“Anybody who can avoid [the H-2A program] has been avoiding it,” she said.

Dysfunctional

Growers are stuck between an illegal system and a dysfunctional one. In recent years, the Bush administration stepped up raids on illegal immigrants and increased criminalization of immigrants, making both farmers and farmworkers nervous. The Obama administration backed off on raids in 2009, but Kurrle reports that enforcement has been uneven. In some areas of the country, raids have been unrelenting, leading local officials to complain of being singled out by the Department of Homeland Security.

Though many lawmakers acknowledge the current immigration system is broken, comprehensive immigration reform has failed to gain traction in Congress in recent years. Even a popular piece of legislation crafted by farmworker advocates and agribusiness interests, known as AgJOBS, has languished in Congress for nearly a decade.

AgJOBS provides a pathway to citizenship for many illegal farmworkers while reforming and expanding the guest-worker system. It’s been introduced as part of several recent comprehensive immigration reform bills, as well as a stand-alone bill.

“AgJOBS was really this remarkable compromise between the growers and the UFW [United Farm Workers],” said Ruben Navarrette, Jr., a syndicated columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune who writes about immigration issues.

Navarrette says the most recent push for immigration reform fizzled due to neglect from the George W. Bush White House. Bush squandered the momentum coming into his second term with an ill-fated attempt to reform Social Security, he said. Without a push from the White House, Republicans gave in to nativist sentiments and balked at amnesty for illegal immigrants. Some Democrats wanted immigration reform, but others feared an expanded guest-worker program would anger organized labor.

“The big untold story of the last go-around was that it was guest-workers that killed immigration reform,” Navarrette said.

Another attempt at reform seems on tap this year. In December, Representative Luis V. Gutierrez (Democrat, Illinois) unveiled a comprehensive immigration bill, including AgJOBS. Senators Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York) and Lindsey Graham (Republican, North Carolina) are poised to unveil their own immigration bill. Both bills are expected to feature a pathway to legal status for illegal aliens, an expanded guest-worker program, and increased enforcement efforts. Debate on the bills is expected to be heated.

AgJOBS

Adrienne DerVartanian, a policy analyst for Farmworker Justice, said her organization is lobbying alongside agribusiness for the passage of AgJOBS. If workers earn legal status under AgJOBS, they’ll be in a better position to stop exploitation at the workplace. That might mean that they won’t migrate to other employment after gaining legal status, she said. “This could become work where you don’t see people moving on to different occupations.”

Agribusiness groups believe farmers will benefit from AgJOBS, too, by codifying immigration regulations into law instead of leaving them to the discretion of each presidential administration. Before leaving office, Bush loosened the rules of H-2A to make it easier and cheaper for farmers to hire workers, but Obama reversed the last-minute rule change. Southeastern farmers sued over the Obama regulations, slowing the return to the original rules until June, but this presidential tug-of-war has left many farmers scrambling.

Such uncertainty may not be a bad thing, said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that favors restricting immigration. Guest-worker programs are bad for farmers and society, he argues. Germany learned this when it curbed its guest-worker program in the seventies, only to discover most of the guest-workers simply decided not to return home, he said.

“There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary worker,” Krikorian said.

Krikorian believes cheap immigrant labor is making American farmers less competitive in the global market because it’s curbing their impulse to invest in technological innovation. Whenever there is a labor shortage, he said, farmers try to find ways to automate harvesting.

The recent crackdown on illegal immigrants, along with rising labor costs, has sparked renewed interest in technologies that could reduce labor needs at harvest, including a robotic picking system that is being developed with funding from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

While DerVartanian believes immigration reform might pass this year, some observers believe the effort will stall out until after congressional elections in November. They argue that lawmakers won’t risk taking on such a hot-button issue so close to reelection. Also, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, there is little political will to take on immigration reform before financial reform or jobs bills. Meanwhile, the health-care overhaul push has gone on longer, and used more political capital, than expected.

“This year, politically, nothing is going to happen,” Krikorian said. “AgJOBS doesn’t have a prayer.”

If he’s right, farmers like Valicoff will have to live with the current system. Valicoff plans to have all his H-2A applications in before the new Obama rules take effect. Then he’ll have to fill out his work force with workers with questionable documents.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, but we really don’t like it,” he said.

Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer in Maine. He’s written for Mother Earth News, Living the Country Life, BackHome, and more than 30 other publications.