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Big Growers Push For Guest Workers

Fearful that a crackdown on illegal immigration could dry up their labor supply, fruit growers are lobbying Congress for permission to import large numbers of foreign workers for the first time in nearly four decades.

Farm organizations around the nation are making the push, arguing they need a future safety valve if Congress gets serious about proposals to tighten the border with Mexico, develop foolproof identity cards and levy fines against farmers who employ illegal immigrants.

But opposition to a new guest-worker program is also creating rare unity among some pro- and anti-immigration groups. Both note the current surplus of farm labor and predict that “temporary” workers will find ways to stay permanently.

“The reason they want guest workers is that they want a continuing supply of workers who won’t complain,” charges Lupe Gamboa, head of Evergreen Legal Services’ Sunnyside, Wash., office, a non-profit group that represents farm workers.

“They don’t want to do what every other employer has to do, which is let market forces dictate wages and benefits.” West Coast growers haven’t used guest workers in any numbers since the early 1960s. That’s when the end came for the “bracero” program, a controversial episode in immigration history in which more than a million Mexicans were recruited to work in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Leading the charge for a new program are California farmers. Passage last year of Proposition 187, which called for cutting off schooling and other public benefits for illegal immigrants, gave new urgency to a guest-worker law.

The anti-immigrant mood also rattles Eastern Washington fruit growers. The Washington State Apple Commission said as many as 50,000 temporary workers are required to harvest the state’s $1 billion-a-year apple crop, the nation’s largest.

“It’s true, we don’t have a labor shortage now. But I have real concerns where we’ll be in three to five years if we really clamp down,” said Randy Smith, a Wenatchee apple grower. “We have never been able to fill these jobs with American citizens.”

Sharon Hughes, director of the National Association of Agricultural Employers, acknowledges that in Washington, estimates that at least 30 percent of farm workers are in the country illegally are probably accurate. Fraudulent work papers are easy to obtain and current law doesn’t make employers responsible for validating documents.

“Listen, I’m pretty skeptical that this country is ever going to adopt a tamper-proof, foolproof ID system,” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which backs a guestworker program. “But if we do it, we need a humane way to bring in farm workers. We have a lot of labor needs in a short period.”

Robert Kiley, a California political consultant who helped to write Proposition 187, says he might support the program if he believed taxpayers wouldn’t wind up footing the bill. But he has doubts.

“There’s plenty of people to do the labor right now,” said Kiley. “But if they bring people in, they should take care of their medical, their dental, their housing. I’d love to have a business where the taxpayer takes care of my workers. That’s what I fear will happen here.”

One reason for such skepticism is that West Coast growers, with plenty of labor available, have rarely used a current law that allows temporary farm workers to come in on so-called H2 visas.

Farmers claim the Department of Labor program is beset by complicated regulations that allow farm worker-advocacy groups and unions to endlessly challenge labor requests. Schlect also said requirements for providing worker housing that meets local standards make it prohibitively expensive.

The National Association of Agricultural Employers said the proposal for a new program will include a provision for withholding a portion of a worker’s wages until the worker returns home, as a way to prevent the person from staying. But growers also want less restrictive wage and housing requirements than are in the H2 program, though they won’t provide details yet.

State Sen. Margarita Prentice, a Seattle Democrat who is Washington’s only Hispanic lawmaker, said: “I think the whole idea stinks. It sure looks to me like the way to save a low-wage work force.”

Farmers must fight both current sentiment in favor of reducing all types of immigration and history.

A California GOP congressman is expected to introduce a guestworker bill soon. Lobbying efforts from this state are expected to focus on Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who growers say supported guestworker proposals in the past, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., a freshman who represents fruitgrowing areas.

But President Clinton and former Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who heads the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, have both criticized the idea. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who heads the House immigration subcommittee, said there is no evidence of a need for guest workers.