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Growers renew push for immigration reform

For the last 14 years, Fred Leitz has been traveling to Washington, D.C., telling members of Congress that if they don’t fix America’s immigration system, fruit and vegetable crops are going to start rotting in the fields. His dire prediction seems to be coming true this year.

“I probably lost over a million dollars worth of crops this year,” Leitz said. “I can’t leave that money out in the field. We literally can’t afford it.”

The problem is that not enough workers showed up at Leitz Farms in Sodus, Mich., to harvest all the tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes, apples and other crops, which forced Leitz to abandon almost a third of them. He wasn’t alone. In mid-October, the number of Michigan apple pickers was down about 20 percent from normal, and growers were forced to choose which apples were worth picking and which had to be abandoned, said Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

Specialty crop growers in Michigan, and across the United States, have been struggling with labor shortages in 2013. They say the solution to the problem is immigration reform, and they’re calling on Congress to make it happen.

That was the point of a news conference held Oct. 10 at the Christian Reformed Church denominational headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich. As a denomination, the CRC has been pushing to fix the nation’s “broken” immigration system for years, said Peter Vander Meulen, coordinator of CRC’s office of social justice.

The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June, but the House of Representatives hadn’t reciprocated by mid-October – when the federal government shutdown had Washington, D.C., at a standstill.

The nationwide shortage of workers for specialty crop growers has reached crisis levels, said Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Association. If it continues, growers will start planting fewer acres, retailers will have less produce to sell and consumers will have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Specialty crop acres will move out of traditional growing areas and into other countries, he said.

More than a million workers plant, harvest and pack America’s fruits and vegetables, and Stenzel conceded that most of them are undocumented. In fact, there are probably more than 10 million undocumented workers throughout the United States, working in multiple sectors of the economy. There’s a misconception about who those people are and how they got here, however. They didn’t all “jump a fence” a couple of years ago or “swim across the Rio Grande” to get here. They arrived two decades ago, by car and airplane. They entered the United States legally – but overstayed their visit.

“The image a lot of people have of people running across the border is not who we’re talking about,” Stenzel said. “The folks here today are families, they’re moms and dads. Their children have been born here. They’re part of the American fabric.”

Those folks are now trapped on the U.S. side of the border.

“We think a fence keeps people out, but what it does is it keeps people here,” Stenzel said. “They can’t go home because they would never get back to their families. We’ve created a perverse system over the last 20 years that’s not helping anyone.”

A way needs to be found to adjust those workers to legal status, Stenzel said. But specialty crop growers need more than that. Their labor pool is aging, and they need a way to replenish it now and in the future: a reliable guest-worker program.

Don Coe, a managing partner of Black Star Farms, a vineyard and winery in Suttons Bay, Mich., and a commissioner of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, described what a reliable guest-worker program might look like.

Here’s Coe’s idea in brief: Establish guest-worker processing stations at U.S. points of entry or areas of likely employee concentration. List current job openings on a simple online database. Check applicant documents and police records and match the appropriate worker to the appropriate job. Issue a temporary guest-worker document and travel authorization to get the worker to the initial job site. When the job is over, the first employer – using the online database – will assist the guest worker in locating his or her next job. Upon completion of the last job, the final employer will issue a travel authorization to the port of departure. The initial employment station will cancel the temporary work permit, but keep a file for quick re-validation when the guest worker returns.

Despite the gridlock in Washington, D.C., Stenzel chose to be optimistic about the future of immigration reform. The American public is finally starting to understand the need for it, and he encouraged them to pressure Congress to fix the immigration system. There’s still a chance for it to happen in 2013, he said.

Matt Milkovich

Originally posted Friday, Oct. 11, 2013

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