Feb. 22–The border between doing nothing about illegal immigration and finally bringing much needed reforms seems to be quickly evaporating.
With the November election results punishing Republicans for their get-tough, do-nothing stance, Congress and President Obama are jockeying for position to see who can put together a proposal that would gather bipartisan support while attracting Latino voters (see accompanying column by Charles Krauthammer). The main issue seems to be in how border enforcement and legal residency are linked.
Californians seem to be echoing the call for ending the deadlock — and then some. According to a statewide Field Poll, most Californians — 90 percent — support a path to legality for illegal immigrants. The poll also shows majorities still favor keeping out more illegal newcomers while supporting more border guards and border fencing — and stronger penalties for employers who hire illegal residents. This support for immigration reform is in a state trending toward a Hispanic majority — with projections that by this summer, Latinos will surpass whites as the largest group in the state. By 2030, they’ll make up the largest segment of the state’s largest work force, and by 2060 may become a majority of the population.
An estimated 2.6 million illegal immigrants live in California, — about a quarter of the nation’s total; illegal immigrants represent about 7 percent of the state’s
population. The vast majority, about 1.8 million, are employed.
At the peak of harvest time last fall, California had 453,000 agricultural workers — but a tight labor market is provoking farm groups to press Congress for a guest worker program that would ensure a steady flow of workers and prevent a mass exodus of newly legalized farm laborers. The current shortage is attributed to the recessionary economy in the U.S. and California, coupled with more jobs in Mexico, along with tighter border enforcement and organized crime in Mexico, which is preventing many migrants from crossing the border.
The federal government estimates about half the nation’s farmworkers are here illegally; farmers, however, say those numbers are way off — it’s more like 7 in 10 farm laborers are in the California without documentation. Farmers also have consistently said that despite high unemployment in the state, few native-born residents apply for ag jobs, which are physically demanding and often seasonal.
Farmers say they have cause for concern about immigration reform, because in 1986 — the last time legalization was tried — many laborers left farm work for higher paying, year-round jobs elsewhere. These legal residents were replaced by more illegal workers.
Despite the shortage, wages for farm labor are relatively stagnant, with crop workers nationwide earning an average of $10.76 an hour, compared to $9.40 in 2007. In California, however, that wage is more like $13 an hour.
Farmers say that a federal program designed to allow temporary entry of migrant agriculture workers — called H-2A — doesn’t work in California because it means they have to pay higher wages and housing costs, and deal with bureaucratic paperwork.
Some farmers are seeking a plan that would allow ag workers to earn permanent, legal, residency by working a certain number of days in a year; people who worked more days would move up the list to get a green card. They want workers to be able to move from farm to farm, and back and forth across the border, without harassment and the threat of deportation.
Immigration reform has to help provide a more reliable source of labor for California farmers.