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Farm work seminars draw little interest

Growers tried to reach nonimmigrant job seekers

Critics of U.S. immigration policy maintain that undocumented workers take jobs from U.S. citizens and legal residents, but those who make a living in agriculture say this is not so.

In 2006, the Washington Growers League advertised through newspapers, billboards and radio stations for local help picking tree fruit.

The ad campaign made sure it bought ads at radio stations featuring “shock jocks” who rail against illegal immigration, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, which advocates for comprehensive immigration reform.

“About 40 people showed up statewide for seminars on how to pick apples,” Gempler said.

According to the state Department of Employment Security, Washington agribusiness employed 135,630 farmworkers at the peak of harvest in 2008.

Those who criticize current U.S. immigration policy as too lenient say that undocumented immigrants bring with them drugs and gang violence, are a threat to the nation’s security and a drain on social services. The state of Arizona recently passed a controversial law requiring people to carry immigration papers and giving police broader authority to detain people suspected of being here illegally. The Arizona Legislature voted on the law shortly after an Arizona rancher was murdered by a suspected drug smuggler.

The law is due to go into effect Thursday.

“There are those who want enforcement first,” Gempler said. Some advocate securing the border before immigration reform is enacted, an approach Gempler called “a recipe for disaster” for Washington agriculture.

“All the changes (to immigration law) need to happen at the same time without hurting business,” Gempler said, including adjustment of the legal status of those who are working here now. “The country needs to deal with how we protect and bring into our country and into our system the people who have been here and are contributing members of the community.”Gempler also sees problems with the U.S. guest worker policy, which extends work permits known as H-2A visas to foreign workers after an employer has certified that he or she cannot find American workers to do the job.

“People you think would be most likely to use the program would be people who have been up here working,” Gempler said. “But the law makes them ineligible because they have been here illegally.”

The Washington Growers League is pushing Congress to allow a waiver for such workers in the agriculture jobs bill as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Gempler said he doubts that will happen this year or next, but perhaps in 2012.

Lilia Gomez, an outreach coordinator for the Washington Association of Community and Migrant Health Clinics, also said many seasonal farmworkers from Mexico come here intending to go back when they make enough money.

Sometimes they return, she said. Sometimes their children grow up here and they must choose between the family they raised here and the home they left behind.

“Before, they would come, work and go home and then come back next year,” Gomez said.

But Gomez believes the immigration crackdown and border tightening since 9/11 have changed this dynamic.

Visas are scarce, she said, and sneaking back into the United States after returning to Mexico can cost upward of $5,000 a person, and can be dangerous.

“We have the jobs here, but not the visas to make it possible,” Gomez said. “It’s sad. Every single day, people are dying trying to cross the border.”


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