Farmers hope to gain stable, legal work force

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By Christopher Sherman

Sentinel Staff Writer

October 24, 2003

A controversial bill winding through Congress would legalize as many as

100,000 undocumented workers in Florida and retool an agricultural guest-worker program

that farmers seeking cheap labor have circumvented for years.

 

The legislation has broad bipartisan support as well as the endorsement of groups as diverse

as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the United Farm Workers and the Mexican government.

Backers say the changes are needed to create a stable, legal work force for farmers and

to keep track of and protect workers who already toil in the citrus groves, ferneries

and cattle pastures of Central Florida.

 

"We historically haven't been able to find people in America to work in agriculture

 -- to do the backbreaking work," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, co-sponsor of the bill.

"We need to have it to have domestic agriculture in the United States."

 

"In the first place, it's a matter of human dignity. In the second place, it's a matter of security."

 

Abraham Guerrero, 52, picking oranges in Haines City this week, was unaware of the bill that

could legalize many of the people he has worked with for decades. Guerrero has been picking citrus,

tomatoes and other crops in the United States since 1971, but the Mexico native only gained

his permanent-resident status in 1990. The bill could provide legal status to as many as 500,000

undocumented workers nationwide who, like Guerrero, crossed the border in search of work.

 

Farmworker advocates are working at the grass-roots level to enlist immigrants such as Guerrero

in the push to pass the bill.

 

A group of farmworkers in Apopka was hopeful after learning of the bill for the first time at a meeting

Monday night. Several quickly volunteered to canvass their community to urge workers to lobby

legislators with fliers providing the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Florida's

congressional delegation.

 

"It's good because around here, there are a lot of people who need work permits," said Rosalio,

25, a volunteer who would only give his first name. "I want to teach others about this

so we can capture the attention of the legislators."

 

Rosalio, who has worked in the area illegally since 1995, has a wife and 2-year-old daughter

and said he has applied for legal residency.

"It's a blessing to be in this country," he said.

Foes: Bill helps lawbreakers

But critics argue that the bill rewards lawbreakers.

 

"There is absolutely no moral imperative that you have to connect a guest-worker program to amnesty,

" Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus,

said in a phone interview from the U.S.-Mexican border south of San Diego.

"You can create a guest-worker program, but there's no need to do horrible public policy,

which is to reward people breaking the law."

 

Tancredo said the bill would only increase illegal immigration. On a recent night patrol with the U.S. Border Patrol,

he said the group he was with rounded up about 20 people illegally crossing the border in southern California,

and the radio was going off the whole time about others.

 

Farmers don't deny that many workers have broken the law to come to their fields, but they say

those who labor to put food on American tables -- as well as raise their families,

pay taxes and follow the laws once they're here -- deserve a reward.

 

Hank Scott, who runs Long & Scott Farms in Zellwood, is blunt about the labor realities of farming in Florida.

Scott gets his workers from a contractor for less money and hassle than he would through the guest-worker program.

 

"There's no doubt that some of them are illegal," Scott said. "We're not supposed to know it, but you've got to."

What Scott described as being "between a rock and a hard place" has long had the attention of Sen. Bob Graham,

D-Fla., an original co-sponsor of the bill. When the bill was introduced last month, Graham said the bill balances

"basic rights and protections" for undocumented workers with the need for a more efficient guest-worker program.

 

One portion of the bill would grant temporary-resident status to anyone who worked at least 100 days in agriculture

during any 12 consecutive months of an 18-month period that ended Aug. 31. If those workers continue to work at

least 360 days in agriculture during the next six years, they will be eligible for permanent-resident status.

 

The other part of the bill would streamline the guest-worker program so that farmers such as Scott might consider

using it to attract a legal work force in the future. If either portion of the bill is lost in committee hearings,

the window for the long-sought reforms will slam shut.

 

"It was a monumental task to get growers and workers on the same page," said Rob Williams,

director of the Migrant Farm Worker Justice Project at Florida Legal Services Inc. Williams represented

farm labor in negotiations with growers. "This is the deal -- there's nothing else."

 

Grower representatives are just as adamant about the reforms to the guest-worker program that will

greatly streamline what farmers have called for years an overly bureaucratic process that is not

in their economic interest. The Florida Citrus Mutual, Florida Farm Bureau Federation,

Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and other state groups have endorsed the bill.

 

Leo Polopolus, a retired University of Florida professor who testified before a Senate committee

with Graham about five years ago on reforming the agricultural guest-worker program,

said it is obsolete to growers for reasons of timing and cost.

 

Current program has critics

 

Only 740 farmworkers were brought into Florida through the guest-worker program in fiscal year 2002,

but the bill could legalize about 100,000 immigrants who were working in the state at that time.

 

Growers argue that the program's minimum-wage requirements are artificially high and

call guarantees for days of work and housing too onerous.

 

"Working on such tight margins, it didn't make any sense to do that," said Mike Carlton,

director of producer and labor affairs for Florida Citrus Mutual and a member of the

National Council of Agricultural Employers' executive committee.

 

However, critics say the cheap labor supply enjoyed by agriculture is a subsidy that skews the marketplace.

 

"Our continued dependence on a never-ending supply of illegal labor in this country has depressed wages

and working conditions in American agriculture and has stymied a move toward mechanization

and more-modern harvesting procedures," said David Ray, spokesman for the

Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C.

 

The only reason the current system that permits illegal workers into the country has been perpetuated

is because farmers have been able to pass the extra costs of illegal immigrants on to taxpayers, he said.

 

"They don't pay for their health care, schooling or incarceration," he said.

 

'An agricultural crisis'

 

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who is spearheading the bill in the Senate with Sen. Edward Kennedy,

D-Mass., said the bill would be a small step toward reforming immigration policy to let foreign workers

enter legally for seasonal work and return to their country of origin.

Without it, the current situation with tightened borders "creates an agricultural crisis in our economy,"

he said.

 

By Thursday, 30 senators -- evenly split between Democrats and Republicans -- had signed on as sponsors,

including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

 

Craig said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told him Thursday that he was pleased with the

bipartisan effort, and if it continued, he would be willing to consider it on the floor of the Senate

before the end of the session.

 

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has indicated he would like to move ahead on the bill as well,

said Leslie Palmer, federal-state director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson plans to write a letter urging the state's

congressional delegation to support the bill, she said.

 

Christopher Sherman can be reached at csherman@orlandosentinel.com or 863-422-3395.

 

 

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