When federal immigration agents hauled off nine mushroom workers in Pennsylvania last month, hundreds of Monterey Mushroom workers in the area did not report to work the next day.
When Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents make arrests in a neighboring county, fear keep workers away at the Watsonville-based company, according to company president/owner Shah Kazemi.
“This problem is not unique to our industry. It’s seen across the agricultural community,” said Kazemi. “It’s not a sustainable lifestyle for anyone.”
Kazemi said a lack of workers has led him to cut back production by 12 percent in California, by 15 percent in Illinois, by 7 percent in Texas and by 6 percent in Florida. The company, the country’s largest producer of fresh mushrooms, has about 500 jobs it can’t fill, he said.
“Since the mass deportation fear factor, we don’t get many (job) applicants any more,” said Kazemi, who said regular pay is about $16 an hour, with some making $30 an hour.
“These are not low-paying jobs,” he said. “These are highly skilled workers. Unfortunately, we cannot replace them with domestic workers, and automation is not in our future.”
Wherever I go in California, when I talk to dairy farmers, when I talk to small farmers, they tell me they can’t find workers. They tell me that workers are scared; that they are afraid they will be picked up and deported; that they have disappeared.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California
Sen. Dianne Feinstein – working in conjunction with four Senate colleagues and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez – believes the solution to the ag labor shortage is the Agricultural Worker Program Act.
The proposed bill, which she hopes will gain bipartisan support, allows undocumented farmworkers who have worked in ag for at least 100 days in the past two years to earn a blue card that shields them from deportation. Those who maintain that status for three years can then get a green card.
After five years with a green card and continuous work in agriculture, they can apply for U.S. citizenship.
California’s $54 billion agricultural industry is vulnerable to immigration crackdowns or border enforcement because experts believe at least 70 percent of the state’s 560,000 farmworkers are undocumented.
“The people who feed us should have an opportunity to work here legally,” said Feinstein during a May 9 telephone call with Gutiérrez, Kazemi, United Farm Workers president Arturo S. Rodríguez and others to promote the legislation.
“Wherever I go in California, when I talk to dairy farmers, when I talk to small farmers, they tell me they can’t find workers,” said Feinstein. “They tell me that workers are scared; that they are afraid they will be picked up and deported; that they have disappeared.”
The proposed legislation, which was introduced last week, is similar to the agricultural portion of a 2013 immigration bill that won overwhelming, bipartisan support in the Senate but died in the House when Republican leadership refused to bring it up for a vote.
Gutiérrez said there are enough House votes to pass the bill.
“It was just 2013 that I stood with House Speaker (Paul) Ryan in Chicago supporting farmworkers,” said Gutiérrez. The Republican Party “will eventually have to come back. We could pass this bill today if they simply gave us a vote.”
Feinstein said the bill is needed to protect undocumented farmworkers and their families while assuring a workforce for farmers and growers in light of the Trump administration’s announced crackdown on undocumented residents.
“Protecting our agricultural workforce from deportation is both an economic and moral imperative,” said Feinstein. “I’ve worked on this issue for decades, but today there’s a renewed sense of urgency to take action.”
It is as if we are saying that you can stoop over in our fields, but we are going to treat you as outsiders – never part of America’s society, never able to become citizens, never able to keep your families together under the protection of and in compliance with U.S. law.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Illinois
Gutiérrez and Rodríguez see a need to recognize the work of undocumented labor in providing the nation with safe produce.
“We benefit from them, but we do not have a legal way for them to come here or a way for them to get legal once they are here,” said Gutiérrez. “It is as if we are saying that you can stoop over in our fields, but we are going to treat you as outsiders – never part of America’s society, never able to become citizens, never able to keep your families together under the protection of and in compliance with U.S. law.”
Rodríguez, who has been involved in previous efforts with the agricultural community to grant legal status to undocumented farmworkers, said it time to make legal status available to “professional farmworkers.”
“Their sacrifice, skill and hard work produce the greatest bounty of food the world has ever known, a bounty over which we give thanks each day at our dinner tables,” said Rodríguez.
Lourdes Cárdenas, a Fresno county grape picker, has put up with discrimination and hot weather in the fields for 14 years. The proposed bill, she said, would make her life easier.
“We’re afraid after doing all this work that on the way home we’ll be separated from our families,” said Cárdenas.
María de Sagrario Arellano, who has been in the U.S. for 25 years has worked the last 6 years at a Washington state dairy, but remains in the shadows without documents.
She said Feinstein’s bill would allow her and fellow workers to go “to the bank and not fear that ICE or the police is there to pick us up and deport us.”
Bruce Goldstein, president of Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice, said the legislation would be “an important step” toward fixing the country’s broken immigration system.
“The government’s increased immigration enforcement worsens the harm that many farmworker families suffer under our broken immigration system and threatens our agricultural businesses,” said Goldstein.
Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii are co-authors with Feinstein on her bill.