BusinessWeek forecasts doom to agriculture if E-Verify passes

BusinessWeek on Saturday reported that Congress–looking to require all U.S. businesses to use E-Verify to ascertain that each employee hired is legally able to work in the country–could destroy the American agriculture sector in the process.

And, in Colorado, the annual round-up of illegal farm workers has begun.

Says BusinessWeek:

The agriculture industry fears a disaster is on the horizon if the one bit of new immigration policy that Congress seems to agree on becomes law.

It’s a plan to require that all American businesses run their employees through a program that confirms each worker is legally entitled to work in the U.S.

The program, known as E-Verify, could wreak havoc on an industry where 80 percent of the field workers are illegal immigrants. So could the increased paperwork audits already under way by the Obama administration.

The BusinessWeek story was excerpted from a much more in-depth Associated Press piece, which says farm businesses in the United States need to be able to hire lots of people on short notice and for short-term work that is both skilled and difficult.

“Few citizens express interest, in large part because this is hard, tough work,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said this past week. “Our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers to do the right thing.”

Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, said migrant farm workers are exposed to blistering heat with little or no shade and few water breaks. It’s skilled work, he said, requiring produce pickers to be exact and quick. While the best mushroom pickers can earn about $35,000 to $40,000 a year for piece work, there’s little chance for a good living and American workers don’t seem interested in farm jobs.

Manuel Cunha, president of Nisei Farmers League, a group representing growers in central California, said farmers don’t have the wherewithal to verify a worker’s status when their labor force is often hired on the spot and in a hurry to pick ripe crops. Forcing them to verify a worker’s legal status, he said, would prove disastrous.

“If we were to use E-Verify now, we’d shut down, either that or farmers would go to prison,” said Cunha, a Fresno-based citrus farmer. “We’ve admitted many workers are not legal and if you have to get rid of everybody, where do I go to get my labor? Nowhere. We have to have a work force that we can put in the system.”

Last year, the AP reports, the UFW conducted a campaign to interest Americans in seasonal agricultural work. They received more than 86,000 inquiries but only 11 American citizens ended up accepting employment.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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