Calif. Farmers Call for Legal Immigration Labor Pool

California farmers who want to make it easier to hire undocumented immigrants are headed to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to confront lawmakers on immigration reform. They say agriculture is being crippled by a deepening labor shortage, and they want guaranteed access to legal immigrant labor. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports from California's Central Valley about agriculture's stake in the immigration debate.

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Farmer have a huge interest in changes to immigration law. All but the smallest farms depend on immigrants, legal and illegal. This week, hundreds of California farmers are lobbying Congress to pass some kind of guest worker program, because they can't find enough help to work their fields. From member station KQED, Sasha Khokha reports.

SASHA KHOKHA reporting:

It's a chilly morning, just outside the tiny, central California town of Yettem, in the shadow of the Sierra Mountains. Workers climb on tall, metal ladders to pick navel oranges and load them into heavy, canvas bags strapped to their shoulders. These crews are stretched thin this season, working six and seven day a week, so fruit doesn't rot on the trees. John Stern is a manager for Labeau(ph) Brothers Packing House.

Mr. JOHN STERN (Manager, Labeau Brothers Packing House): Normally, we have 40 to 50 people at this time of year, and I think our biggest crew is only about 25 people right now, so it's tough. It's real tough.

KHOKHA: And farmers say it will get tougher, as peaches and grapes ripen, and the competition for workers heats up.

(Soundbite of a man speaking Spanish)

KHOKHA: Over the past few years, labor contractors like Francisco Arrera(ph) say it's like a war when recruiters fight for workers at peak harvest season. The competition has become so fierce that workers use their cell phones to call friends in nearby fields and sometimes leave if they hear about a better paying job up the road. University of California economist Phil Martin says farmers are feeling squeeze because of increased order enforcement. Farm workers who used to cross back and forth to Mexico each season are now building more permanent lives in the U.S.

Professor PHIL MARTIN (Economics, Univerisity of California): The total number of people coming illegally hasn't changed very much. By the same token, you make it harder to cross the border, and once you get in, you have a different time horizon, and you're going to stay longer. That makes you more likely to seek and find nonfarm jobs as well.

(Soundbite of construction work)

KHOKHA: In construction, workers can sometimes earn double what they made in the fields. Twenty-two-year-old Maguerito(ph), he didn't want to give his last name, arrived from Mexico last year. He spent just one season picking grapes before picking up a hammer instead.

Mr. MAGUERITO: (Through translator) It's more stable. In the fields, when it rains, there's no work. Sometimes, you go a month or two without work. Here, there's work all the time.

KHOKHA: But back in the fields, there is work to be done, too, and fewer hands to pick the crops. Labor contractor Steve Scoroni's(ph) crews harvest lettuce for some of the largest bagged-salad producers in the U.S. He's in Washington to tell politicians a farm worker labor shortage could spell a major crises for American agriculture.

Mr. STEVE SCORONI (Labor Contractor): Our politicians are so disconnected from the reality of who's doing the work out there. I'm talking about, you know, who's picking the lettuce, who's washing the dishes in the fancy hotels our politicians eat and sleep in. People in the United States don't want to do this work.

KHOKHA: Scoroni says if he can't find workers to pick the crops in California, then he'll have to take his business elsewhere. Next week, he plans to start harvesting lettuce in Mexico. Other farmers are ploughing under their grapes and planting almonds, which require less labor. Researchers are looking into more ways to mechanize harvesting. Back in the Yettem orange grove, a Mexican farm worker named Rovolto(ph) says he knows of only way to ensure that workers already here stay in the field.

Mr. ROVOLTO (Farm Worker): (Through Translater) If they want more people, they need to pay people more. If they don't pay enough, then people will go where they'll make more.

KHOKHA: Farmers say raising wages would put the price of an orange out of reach for most consumers who are used to a cheap, plentiful food supply. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

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