Immigration reform could hit us in the stomach

A Mexican farm worker picks lettuce in the fields of Calexico, Calif., in 2006.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The immigration reform bill has lived to fight again another day. Although it might not be much more than one. Today, the Senate voted down an amendment that could have been a deal killer. The proposal would have made it impossible for criminals to become citizens. It would have included anybody who'd broken the law in order to stay here illegally. So, the debate is still open on the floor. Which leave employers in labor-intensive industries, like agriculture, watching from the sidelines. And Marketplace's Megan Larson reports immigration reform could affect every step of the food chain.


Megan Larson: It's an unlikely place for a farm. But right off the 405 freeway in Costa Mesa, Calif., Richard Manassero grows about a half dozen fruit and vegetable crops.

Every two or three days, workers comb through the strawberry field, picking and pruning the plants of ripe, red fruit. Twelve men and women are on the job this morning — just enough to handle this four-acre patch.

But in a few months, when his beans and sweet corn come in, Manassero will need at least 60 people to help harvest the vegetables. He says he may have trouble filling those spots.

Richard Manassero: We try to keep as many workers as we can and acquire as many as we can. But what happens is we'll picking and coming along fine and as production increases, we don't have enough employees to harvest and keep up on our schedule, our harvesting schedule. And as a result, we have to lay out certain blocks of the field and basically abandon them.

Those wasted crops mean lost revenue — as much as $80,000 a year.

Manassero says the fix lies in comprehensive immigration reform. Like so many farmers, Manassero wants a stable, legal workforce to draw on in the U.S. He supports legislation to create a guest worker program and to legalize the 12 million illegal immigrants currently living here.

But Rick Oltman of the group Californians for Population Stabilization argues that there's a downside.

Rick Oltman: At a certain point, you've got to say look, you know, there is a limit to what the country can take. And we don't feel it is a fair trade to overpopulate the country to the point of a half billion people just so business can get their, you know, their next fix of cheap labor. It's just not fair.

Manassero, who pays minimum wage to his workers, says he'd be happy to hire Americans — but few of them will do this kind of work.

Manassero: We've tried in years past where the EDD — Employment Development Department — has sent people out that were on unemployment to come out and try to work with us. And we've had 'em and I think some people lasted a day, we've had other people only last a half-day, some people have walked out after an hour.

Thomas Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers — an agriculture industry trade group — says the need isn't only in the fields. Foreign workers, he says, are integral to every link on the food chain.

Thomas Nassif: It takes in dairy, poultry. It takes in all these meatpacking plants, beef and pork and all the workers in those plants. It takes the people who are in packing sheds.

And from packing sheds to the distributors and all the way to the markets and the restaurants.

Restaurant Host: Hello, welcome to I Cugini

I Cugini is one of 16 restaurants owned and operated by the King Seafood Company in Southern California.

Chairman and co-founder Jeff King sides with Manassero on the issue of immigration reform. He says his business — and the restaurant industry as a whole — will suffer without it.

Jeff King: There are about 12 million restaurant workers in the country. And in seven years, we're gonna be short 1.9 million. Short!

Just take a tour of I Cugini's kitchen and everyone — from the head chef to the dishwasher — is from Central or South America.

Sous chef Edgar Hernandez came to the U.S. as a teenager and attained citizenship just last year. He hopes others have the same opportunities as he did.

Edgar Hernandez: Unfortunately, some of them, you know, they don't have legal papers to work. But they provide the labor, and they're hard workers. They really are.

Manassero says that's the point. He's hoping that new immigration laws will allow his workers to continue making their contribution here in the U.S.

I'm Megan Larson for Marketplace.

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