With immigration remaining a sizzling political issue, and the Rio Grande Valley being on the front line of border-security matters, Texas onion growers and shippers say they are well aware of the sensitive nature of finding workers to harvest their crop.
This year is no exception.
Some years, labor is a tough sell, they say. This year, things have eased, thanks in part to the current recession, said John McClung, manager of the South Texas Onion Committee in Mission.
“It’s not as tight as it was a couple of years ago because of the economy,” he said. “The economy has driven people who have gotten out of the fields back into them.”
Immigration reform needed
McClung acknowledges that “a substantial part of our field labor is illegal.”
They’re also long-timers, he said.
“They’re not people who move freely across the border day after day, because that is increasingly difficult to do,” he said. “The undocumented workers in the field now have been here for years and years and are part of the 20 million that are underground.”
The south Texas produce industry needs comprehensive immigration reform as much now than ever, McClung said.
The problem, he said, is finding a solution that strikes a proper balance between feeding the labor pool and protecting the border.
Support for AgJobs
The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJobs, has the support of the south Texas industry, McClung said. However, he acknowledged that the measure doesn’t address all concerns.
“The problem with AgJobs is it addresses the issue of the workforce, but it does not address border security or the so-called amnesty issue,” he said.
“One option the Congress is looking at is simply something like AgJobs, which takes care of one of the three issues, but fails to deal with the others — border security and what to do with those who are here illegally.”
The issue of border security has been a major obstacle to immigration reform, McClung said.
“That’s the free flow across the U.S. and the Canadian borders,” he said. “On the Mexican border, if you look at the numbers coming out of California and Texas and Arizona, the number of pickups is way down. It demonstrates quite clearly that the steps that have been taken to date are quite effective.”
The key to resolving the immigration issue is to keep politics out of it, McClung said.
“We are concerned about what the federal government does about holding employers responsible until you have a very good effective system for determining if a potential employee is illegal,” he said. “That’s the problem with the central ID systems. Nobody that I work for wants anything other than secure borders. You have to have secure borders, but you want to do it as intelligently and as cost-effectively as possible.”