Art Barrientos, vice president of harvesting for Ocean Mist Farms, doesn’t mince words when asked about the potential impact of E-Verify legislation. “It would devastate our business,” he says, shaking his head while looking out on a couple spinach harvesting crews in California’s Salinas Valley. Then he turns to a guest, making eye contact for emphasis: “We’d be out of business.”
Serious talk seeing as how Ocean Mist is no fly-by-night operation. Since 1924, through the Great Depression, labor strikes, wars, floods, and freezes, the American Vegetable Grower Top 100 Grower has been producing spinach, lettuce, broccoli, and its signature crop, artichokes. Barrientos says he has no idea how many of the 1,000 to 1,200 workers on the company’s growing and harvesting crews truly have the legal right to work in the U.S., though he suspects it is less than half. Nationwide, estimates are more on the order of 75% to 85% of farmworkers in the country being here illegally. But it’s important to note that all the workers have presented Ocean Mist with what appear to be legal documents, and if the company questions them, they are liable to be sued for discrimination.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX), who introduced the E-Verify bill (H.R. 2164), which is titled the Legal Workforce Act, says it’s perfect timing for the legislation because the country has such high unemployment. “Statements that Americans are not willing to do these jobs demean the hardworking Americans who actually do this work on a daily basis,” Smith said at a January hearing. “Citizens and legal immigrants should not be forced to compete with illegal workers for jobs.”
If that’s the case, says Barrientos, where are they? He says that Monterey County has an unemployment rate of about 12%, even higher than the national average. “We haven’t had those 12% of people coming to us looking for work,” he says, adding what any grower with experience knows, that most legal Americans find farm work too physically demanding for the pay level. “But I’d venture to say that even if you could afford it, you could pay $20 to $30 an hour, and I don’t think you could have enough domestic people stick it out.”
Georgia On Their Mind
Still, a lot of the immigration opponents support Smith’s argument, even if it is one most growers find ludicrous. But it hadn’t been thoroughly tested, at least on any scale, until just recently. That’s when the state of Georgia announced the passage of its own E-Verify law. Oddly enough, most growers wouldn’t have even been required to implement the law’s regulations until 2013, says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. But when migrant workers got wind of the law shortly after it was signed by the governor May 13, right during the spring harvest, they decided not to take any chances. “One rumor was that they were checking papers at the Georgia border, like we were issuing our own visas,” says Hall. “A lot of crews coming up from Florida said let’s bypass Georgia and just go to South Carolina.”
Hall says they are estimating that 30% to 50% of the workers didn’t show up. “How much was left in the field is hard to say. Prices held up, but it may have been because we had a short crop,” he says with a rueful chuckle. “We were estimating early on a $200 to $300 million loss. In the end, it will probably come closer to $200 million because prices were relatively good.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying that they didn’t get the crops harvested. It’s the nature of the work. Take watermelon harvesting. The men form a chain from field to truck and pitch the 15- to 20-pound melons for eight to 10 hours a day in the hot, humid weather. Hall says growers tried using domestic workers in the field, but they just physically couldn’t hold up. “Generally, they would work two to six hours, and if they made six hours, they didn’t come back the next day,” he says. “We may have 9.5% unemployment, but these people aren’t in shape to do it, and they don’t know what to pick or how to pick it.”
Convicts To The Rescue
Just four days after he signed the law, the governor started getting calls from growers saying that their crew leaders couldn’t get workers to come.
The Georgia growers were even getting calls from friends in North Carolina saying they had crews that were just sitting around because their crops were still two to three weeks from harvest, and they had nothing to pick yet. So the governor urged the growers to hire some of the 2,000 people who were on probation, and needed a job because state law mandates it. One larger grower took the governor up on his offer. Out of the 30 to 35 probationers he hired, just four or five were left three weeks later.
Hall told of the Georgia experience in a recent webinar sponsored by United Fresh Produce Association on the topic. Also appearing was Tony DiMare, the vice president of the Florida-based The DiMare Company. Like Hall and others, DiMare expects the federal E-Verify legislation to pass out of the Judiciary Committee and move onto the House floor for a vote in September. The mood of the country seems to favor such legislation, he says. “I think we can expect some sort of mandatory E-Verify program on a federal basis,” he says, adding that if the House doesn’t pass it, other states like Georgia probably will. “I would say you’re going to see something in the next year or two.”
DiMare says it’s clear that unless E-Verify legislation is accompanied by some form of guest worker program, U.S. fruit and vegetable growers are going to be in trouble. “We don’t have a viable option. I don’t mean a good option. Or even a bad option. We have no option. There is no fall-back,” he says. “We must have a guest worker program. Let them come and work and then go home.”
Friends In High Places