MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
A court will soon decide whether the Department of Homeland Security can go ahead with a new crackdown on illegal workers. DHS wants to hold employers accountable if their workers' Social Security numbers can't be proved valid. Employers fear the new rule could put them out of business.
And as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, farmers feel especially vulnerable.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Fred Leitz is in constant motion.
Mr. FRED LEITZ (Leitz Farm, Michigan): Applewood(ph).
Unidentified Man: Yes, sir.
Mr. LEITZ: I'm doing fine. Yourself?
Unidentified Man: Good. Good.
LUDDEN: It's harvest time on Leitz's southwest Michigan farm. This day, he'll send out six or seven truckloads of apples, tomatoes or cucumbers. Leitz walks around with a cordless phone strapped to his waist and a headset under his cap, begging pardon every few minutes to take another order.
Mr. LEITZ: Hello. Yeah. How many is he looking for?
LUDDEN: For years, Leitz has lobbied Congress to legalize the Hispanics who now make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce here in Michigan as elsewhere. Leitz calls himself an optimist. But when the immigration bill in Congress failed this summer, then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the new crackdown on fake Social Security numbers. Leitz says, he had some bad days.
Mr. LEITZ: I farm with three brothers and my mother. She's third generation. And my brothers and I are fourth, hoping not to be last.
(Soundbite of packing machine)
LUDDEN: In a packing shed, dozens of men and women sort grape tomatoes, picking bad ones off a conveyor belt, checking that the right amount of tomatoes fall into the plastic containers that will line store shelves.
(Soundbite of grape tomatoes falling)
LUDDEN: All but a few of these seasonal employees are Hispanic. And based on industry estimates, Leitz says he can only assume some 70 percent are undocumented. He rejects the assertion that two decades ago, Congress made it a crime to hire such workers.
Mr. LEITZ: They gave us a way to legally hire illegal workers. Think about it, legally hire illegal workers. Gentlemen, fill out this form. Mr. Employer, take these documents at their face value.
LUDDEN: Leitz says that 1986 law pointedly did not make employers responsible for checking the validity of workers' identity documents. As long as they didn't look egregiously doctored, they were okay. And for two decades, the federal government's approach was again to don't ask, don't tell. Now, under the new crackdown, farmers notified that a worker's Social Security number's invalid would have 90 days to fire them or face possible prosecution.
Homeland Security chief Chertoff did not deny this would have a devastating impact on agriculture. He blamed Congress for not passing a large-scale legalization.
Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department Homeland Security): If we don't get a vote in Congress, we can't make Congress pass it. Or we can be very sure that we let Congress understand the consequences of the choices that Congress makes. We do the very best we can to mitigate the harm, but in the end we have to follow the law.
Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): What we need to do is make it difficult and unappealing to live illegally in the United States, and this is a big step in that direction.
LUDDEN: Mark Krikorian is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to reduce immigration overall. He says, yes, some farmers may have to mechanize or grow different crops. And sure, the U.S. may have to import strawberries from Mexico. But Krikorian says, it's important that proper legal status become a labor standard like any other.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: Nobody thinks about hiring 12-year-olds to work in factories anymore. Whereas, about, you know, 80, 90 years ago, it was standard procedure. And in fact, there were mill owners who testified before Congress that the economy would grind to a halt if children were barred from working in factories. Well, it didn't and it won't in this time either.
(Soundbite of forklift)
LUDDEN: Fred Leitz loads the last crate of apples onto to a truck. He says if a court approves the new rules on Social Security numbers, his family will not invest $2 million planting crops only to risk an immigration raid.
Mr. LEITZ: I've already talked to my box supplier, my chemical suppliers and stuff. I said, guys, don't have anything ordered ahead for Leitz Farms because if we're not in business, you've got that inventory you've got to worry about, and I'm not going to worry about it.
LUDDEN: Leitz says he just may have his first summer off ever next year, but he doesn't think that will solve America's immigration problem.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.