For years, Olathe sweet corn grower John Harold has played by the rules. He gets temporary work visas to bring legal workers from Mexico to harvest his fields.
Now, as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security beats its chest about new regulations cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, Harold wonders whether it will become even harder for him to do things the right way.
The anti-illegal immigrant movement has gummed up the gears of legal worker recruitment at least as effectively as it has staunched the flow of illegal immigrants into the country.
The visa program has become a nightmare, Harold said.
“It moves at the snail’s pace of bureaucracy,” he explained.
And it is worse than ever.
“Without the help of Sen. Ken Salazar’s office,” said Harold, “we still wouldn’t have workers in the fields this summer.”
When it takes the intervention of a United States Senator to allow a farmer to follow the law, the process is broken. The new employer regulations just announced by Homeland Security don’t address that. In a harvesting season that is time sensitive, the xenophobia driving the anti-illegal immigrant movement can leave crops rotting in the fields.
Over the years Harold has tried to hire non-immigrant labor to pick his corn. He couldn’t find enough workers to do the backbreaking, sweaty work. Thwarting his efforts to find a legal solution defeats the purpose of initiatives such as the one Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff announced last Friday.
Chertoff’s promise that the feds “will come down on (employers who hire undocumented workers) like a ton of bricks” makes a fine sound bite. But without greasing the skids for guys like Harold to hire correctly, the enforcement-only approach helps no one.
“I’m terribly frustrated about this,” said Harold, a former mayor of Olathe. “They continue to hire more people to guard the border. But they cannot stem the flow of illegals. So they say, ‘We’ve failed. Now, you’re responsible.’”
Then, they make hard for employers to be responsible.
New worker identification rules take affect in 30 days. Then, for two months, the new rules will have the Social Security Administration sending out 15,000 “no match” letters a week to employers. The “no match” letters will identify employees with discrepancies in the Social Security numbers they gave employers and the Social Security numbers the government has on file.
Employers will then get 90 days to resolve the discrepancies or face fines and, in the worst cases, jail time. Chertoff insists the feds will not go after employers who make honest mistakes.
Harold isn’t so sure. The farmer talks about “the police state we’re getting toward.”
Harold said he and his competitors already go to employees with non-matching Social Security numbers and ask for another number.
“If we do that, and it still comes back as a non-match, we know we have a problem,” Harold said. “But usually they don’t return. Most of us make an effort, but not an aggressive effort.”
Firing people with bad Social Security numbers; forcing federal contractors to use electronic ID checks; and talking tough won’t fix the whole problem. Neither will sharing state driver’s license photos with federal databases or cutting down on the kinds of ID’s that can qualify people for employment.
The real problem, said Harold, is a labor shortage in the United States and a job shortage in Mexico.
That’s why he and other growers on Colorado’s Western Slope and its Eastern plains are “trying to effectuate a meeting with the state’s congressional delegation to say people are getting hurt.”
He’s not just talking about undocumented workers; he’s talking about citizen farmers. He’s talking about consumers, too.
“We are frustrated with the fact that the immigration bill (in Congress) went nowhere,” said Harold.
That’s because it will take a comprehensive solution to solve a comprehensive problem. That solution must deal realistically with the estimated 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants already employed in this country.
“They’re not going home because there’s no work there,” said Harold. “My son farms in Mexico. He tells me, ‘Dad, we don’t have 13 million jobs here.’”
Mass round-ups and forced deportations would cost a fortune and throw the U.S. economy into chaos. The only practical alternative is looking for ways to make the visa program function and a way to let the working people already here become legal.
As one very flustered farmer noted: “They may not pick corn for John Harold. But they’ll find work.”