Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, believes every employer in America ought to be required to check their workers' Social Security numbers against a federal electronic database, a system called E-Verify, to weed out illegal immigrants from the nation's workforce. Smith has introduced a bill--"The Legal Workforce Act"--that would make the policy law, and it has drawn support from Smith's fellow conservatives in Washington, D.C. But in Washington state and other areas where immigrant laborers harvest everything from apples to zucchini, farm owners believe the measure will have roughly the same impact on their fields as a plague of hungry locusts.
photo by Peter Mumford
Foster estimates that fewer than five percent of the total agricultural workforce is currently covered under guest-worker or H2A visas, the hopelessly bureaucratic program that Rep. Smith believes will fill the void left by undocumented immigrants turned away by E-Verify. Mike Gempler, the executive director of the Washington Growers League, says that roughly 2,300 of more than 100,000 farmhands in the state have the proper paperwork to remain employed under E-Verify.
"If we were to have the E-Verify bill go into effect without anything else changing, it would be very, very destructive to our industry," Gempler says. "The existing guest-worker program is not a good answer."
As reported in the Sunday New York Times, as a result of the E-Verify bill, Rep. Smith and his fellow Republicans are now facing a backlash in many areas that have traditionally been staunchly conservative. Not only does the bill stand to cripple the $390 billion agriculture industry, the Congressional Budget Office reports that it will cost the federal government $22 billion over a decade from lost tax revenues now collected from the paychecks of illegal immigrants ineligible for services.
Via the NYT:
Mr. Smith's E-Verify bill also includes a three-year grace period before growers would have to comply. But such caveats have done little to quell opposition from farm groups, who have been pleading for years for an overhaul to allow a legal immigrant work force.
And that discontent could manifest itself in elections, farm representatives warn.
"Most of our folks are Republicans," said Paul Wenger, the president of the California Farm Bureau. "But if the Republicans do this to them without a workable worker program, it will change their voting patterns or at very least their involvement in politics.
Smith maintains that without immigrants tending the fields, "we could open up millions of jobs for unemployed Americans and legal workers."
But Gempler, whose organization assists farmers with labor issues, scoffs at the notion that unemployed Americans will get off the couch and jump at the chance to pick cherries for 10 hours a day in 100-degree heat.
"The domestic workforce is just not interested in these jobs," Gempler says. "And if we can't replace that workforce, with the vast majority of our crops, particularly tree fruit, we'll lose production. We would lose market share, and consumers in the U.S. would begin buying their produce from places outside the U.S."
Foster points out that when E-Verify was mandated for all federal contractors, agricultural suppliers got an exemption because lawmakers realized they would not be able to provide American-grown apples for school lunch programs. She and Gempler both say that ideally they hope for comprehensive immigration reform, but realistically they're working for an amendment or a separate bill to address the concerns of farm owners and other business that would be paralyzed by a rigid E-verify policy. The bill--H.R. 2164--is expected to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives but fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Still, Gempler remains worried.
"I'm not confident," Gempler says. "With the politics of the issue, it's hard for an elected official to make a vote against a program that's meant to insure the integrity of our documents."