Harvest is the culmination of a full-year’s work, from pruning the trees in the winter to pollinating in the spring and maintaining the growing crop during the summer. Harvest season is short and worker shortages can mean the difference between making money and losing money as even a few extra days on the tree can greatly reduce the value of the crop. Apple growers must be able to count on a legal, reliable, stable, and skilled workforce. Like other labor-intensive crops, few U.S. born “domestic” workers seek these jobs.
Growers are forced to choose between using the broken H-2A guest-worker program which is bureaucratic, inefficient and downright unreliable, or hire migrant workers who present documents that appear to be “good” but who may or may not be in this country legally. This is not about wages. These workers – whether legally authorized or not – are on the books, paying taxes and contributing to society.
The “enforcement only” approach currently being employed to immigration policy in many parts of the country has resulted in even more chaos and uncertainty. In the summer of 2009, there were widespread reports of workers fleeing western New York just before harvest started as a result of overzealous enforcement practices. Practices by the Border Patrol and local law enforcement, such as pulling drivers over and asking for immigration papers instead of license and registration, and staking out health clinics and Catholic Church parking lots during the Spanish mass. These practices began under the Bush Administration and have continued under the Obama Administration.
The consequences of immediate 100% enforcement only would drastically limit supply of fruits and vegetables the first year, causing food shortages and skyrocketing prices. The following year, producing acreage would be so limited that imports would fill our shelves. In a short span of time, the safety of our food supply would be dependent on other countries’ good agriculture and good handling practices, and frankly, good will. I-9 audits in many states have resulted in agricultural employers having to dismiss long-term, valued employees. One Washington state fruit grower was subject to such an audit last year and as a result is now one of the largest H-2A users in the industry, employing 1,250 workers from Jamaica and Mexico this year alone.