Farmers, unions balance economic interests for immigration deal

A Hispanic migrant laborer works on planting tobacco May 4, 2009 in Vander, N.C.

There's lots of i-dotting and and t-crossing going on right now on Capitol Hill as the big immigration reform bill gets ready for its big reveal on Tuesday. One of the last issues that does seem to have been worked out is what to do about farm workers. Of the one million farmworkers nationwide, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent are thought to be here illegally.

So, what might the immigration compromise look like down on the farm?

When I asked Peter Osterkamp, he was finishing up paying a bunch of fertilizer bills, and about to head out to check on his onion and sugar beet fields. Osterkamp is a fourth generation farmer in southern California’s Imperial Valley, and has about 30 employees.

He says he decided the current immigration system was broken when, a few years ago, he wanted to promote a temporary worker -- “so bright, so intelligent and willing to work so hard,” Osterkamp says -- in to a full-time job, but discovered the man had entered the U.S. illegally.

Because Osterkamp says it can be hard to find people willing to work the grueling hours and hard labor involved with farm work, he wanted to see if he could get a work visa for the man.

Osterkamp says he spent hours trying to navigate the H-2A visa program which currently provides a very limited amount of visas to immigrant farm workers, to “and the answer was always sorry, there's nothing we can do.”

That would change under the current farm-worker proposal recently hashed out between U.S. farmer groups and the United Farm Workers. It would allow all farm workers already here without documents to apply for temporary legal status if they stay in agriculture for five years. Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the UFW Foundation, says that would be good not just for farmers, but also for their workers.

“They’ll be able to work in the fields without fear of getting deported immediately,” says Tellefson Torres. “When there are injustices at the work place, they're not going to have to think ‘Well, I don't have my documents and so I can't speak about what's going on right now.”

The compromise would also increase the number of new visas open to immigrant farm workers each year, and allow those workers to change employers, rather than be tied to a single farming operation. 

The idea of having a new “free-floating” pool of immigrant farm labor, and how to regulate that pool,  raises a new set of questions for the agricultural economy and beyond, says Philip Martin, an immigration economist at University of California, Davis. 

“What's going to prevent me, because I'm legally in the U.S., from going and working in construction as opposed to agriculture, because I can make more money?” Martin says.  “In theory, my work permit is only good for agriculture, but I don't know exactly how we're going to monitor that.”

These are just the sorts of details that the Senate and regulators would need to hammer out in the coming months, if the compromise is going to last.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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