Backers of recently enacted legislationin Alabama and Georgia that targets illegal aliens claim their hand was forced due to the federal government’s refusal to properly enforce laws already in place.
It’s hard to argue the federal government hasn’t been negligent — around 11 million undocumented workers are in the country.
Even so, in 2011 alone, the Obama administration has deported a record 400,000 aliens. Those deportations are responsible for split families and at least 5,000 children have been placed in foster care.
Those opposed to Alabama’s move say the laws are repressive and state legislators didn’t take into account the resulting fallout.
Now, it’s feared that fallout will include neighboring states. Afraid of being reported and/or arrested due to the new laws, illegal aliens have removed their children from Alabama schools and fled their jobs, leaving unharvested crops in the field.
Reports claim undocumented workers are even frightened of driving through Alabama and Georgia on the way to a new job.
These developments have Florida producers very worried.
“Florida agriculture is extremely diverse,” says Adam Basford, National Affairs Coordinator in the Agricultural Policy and National Affairs Division of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation. “Many of the crops we grow in the state rely heavily on hand labor. Labor is absolutely essential to our specialty crop industry.We rely on a migrant work force, mostly foreign.”
“The stricter laws in Georgia and Alabama do cause a problem for some migrant workers traveling through those states to get to Florida,” Basford says. ”Much of it, I think, has to do with fears of being caught and also the perception that those in such a line of work aren’t welcome. That can be a problem.”
In Florida, though, “We haven’t necessarily seen labor shortages due to that. But, we’re afraid that will happen and if we don’t have workers to come into the state to pick our fruit and produce, it will really hurt our agriculture.”
As for hopes for federal legislation to address farm labor needs, Basford says, “Our policy position is we need a legal workforce — and to make that happen, we need a guest worker program.
“The big talk now is around E-Verify (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-verify) and what that will do. Actually, we don’t have a problem with a worker verification system — anything that will help our employers hire and verify a legal workforce would be fine.”
However, if all workers are forcced through the current E-Verify program, Basford says, “There won’t be enough legal workers in the state. We must have a guest worker program at the federal level. There are some proposals out.” California Rep. Dan Lungren and Texas Rep. Lamar Smith “both have viable guest-worker program options. Some of the Florida delegation are helping to hash out the details and make legislation even more workable. There may be a path to get something done.”
Overall, though, Basford says political intransigence means Congress “appears not to be prepared to move forward with any such legislation at this point. In the Senate, there are not any legitimate options” being offered for a guest worker program.
And next year is an election season. As a result “there will be a lot of legislators who probably won’t want to touch this issue. The timing is poor. The way Washington, D.C., works — especially right now — it can be a one-issue town. And currently, they’re working on budgets, deficits and spending. That has sucked all the air out of the room.”
Other important issues “are on the backburner. That appears to be what’s happened to labor and immigration legislation.”
Can the problems with E-Verify be fixed? Do you think it can be modified or should a whole new program be adopted?
“I don’t think the technical problems with E-Verify can’t be overcome. I think they can. There are problems, but I don’t think E-Verify is the underlying issue.”
Rep. Smith’s E-Verify legislation “has passed through the House Judiciary Committee and does some good things. One, it moves from being a post-hire thing — where you could only run an employee through the system after they’ve been hired — to a pre-hire authorization process.”
Now, “you can offer someone a job and then run their name through E-Verify. If they come back as not authorized or pending authorization, you don’t have to hire them right then. That helps keep employers from spending time training someone for no reason…
“We see a lot of value — and some problems — in both Lungren’s and Smith’s guest worker proposals. As far as advocating for one or the other, we just really hope they come to some agreement that will get a program in place that will provide legal workers.”
The real problem, says Basford, is that “there aren’t enough legal workers to fill the jobs that need to be done. We need a guest worker program to fill those jobs.”
Due to Florida’s climate and specialty crop mix, the state “has almost a perpetual need for labor. The growing season is pretty much year-round. I was just in the field yesterday looking at crops in all phases of growth. Labor here is needed constantly. Anytime a farmer spends money on outlays, he needs to have a good idea about his labor” situation into the future.
“All of this just highlights the need for legislators to get a reliable guest worker program done. There is a lot of fear about this, but as of now, labor has been available and we haven’t had a huge across-the-board shortage yet. That could change at the drop of a hat, though — just ask farmers in Georgia.
“There must be a reasonable pathway” for undocumented workers, says Basford. “There has be a way to connect the workers in foreign countries — folks that want to work in order to better their families — and employers in Florida who need a job done and can’t find a domestic workforce.”
See Florida Farm Bureau’s labor policy position paper at http://www.floridafarmbureau.org/issues/issue_briefs