Orchardists need to make it known that without immigration reform, they are not going to have the labor force to harvest their crops, says Jon Wyss, government affairs director at Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington.
Speaking at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting, Wyss said 47 percent of any vote in Congress on the immigration issue comes from representatives of states east of the Mississippi, and only two—New York and Florida—employ seasonal agricultural workers.
The tree fruit industry also has to fight public perception that growers are just looking for a cheap labor force, he said, noting that the industrywide average hourly wage of $11 does not equate to cheap labor.
The federal government will not let up on enforcement, Wyss said, because the American people want to seal the border. However, 40 percent of the illegal immigrants in the country didn’t cross the border illegally, he said. They overstayed their visas because they wanted to continue to pursue their dream in the United States rather than go back to Mexico and earn 25 cents per day.
Rational immigration reform would include a temporary worker program based on the need for labor, which could be adjusted with the economy, he said. Currently, with a nationwide unemployment rate of 4 percent, there’s a need to bring in more workers.
Wyss would like to see immigration be employment based, rather than family based, and suggests that workers be provided with better identification, such as a biometric card, to prove who they are, and that they are legal workers.
"We have to get a reliable documentation program so we know who we’re hiring," he said.
Currently, workers who have worked in the United States illegally are barred from coming into the country as guest workers through the H-2A program. Wyss said that the rules need to be changed so that illegal workers can go back to Mexico and return legally through the H-2A program as a skilled labor force. He also would like to see the Adverse Effect Wage Rate that is required for H-2A workers replaced by the prevailing wage rate.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a new rule under which an employer receiving notice from the Social Security Administration that the Social Security number of an employee does not match the person’s name might have to fire the employee if the discrepancy is not resolved within a certain time. An employer not responding could be prosecuted for knowingly –hiring an illegal worker.
In October, U.S District Court Judge Charles Brayer in San Francisco issued a preliminary order preventing the government from enforcing the new rule, but Wyss said the order is temporary, and the situation could change as early as March.
Wyss urged growers to put pressure on local officials, such as county commissioners. Though they dismiss immigration as a federal issue, local communities benefit from the tax dollars that migrant workers and their families bring. County commissioners then need, in turn, to put pressure on state legislators, he said. "We have to start locally and move up the chain.
"We have between now and March to get our local politicians to start coming on board with us. People want to stay below the radar on this issue. That time has gone. We all need to be standing up on this issue."
Congressional representatives say the vast majority of people they hear from want to keep all illegal workers out of the country, he added. "Now is not the time to put our head in the sand. We need to stand up as an industry and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Agriculture is the backbone of this country."