Food industry braces for crackdown on illegal immigrant workers

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — In the wake of the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, the Bush administration on Aug. 10 announced a crackdown on illegal immigrant workers and the employers who depend on their labor. Stepped-up enforcement of existing laws threatens to "wallop" fruit and vegetable producers even as the peak of the harvest in key regions approaches, said farmer advocates.

At the same time, some farm organizations applauded the administration’s intent to make existing legal seasonal immigrant farm worker programs more user-friendly. Likewise, food processors largely dependent on immigrant labor, while wary of the administration’s crackdown, pointed approvingly to the proposed expansion of the Basic Pilot program for determining an immigrant worker’s eligibility for employment.

The administration’s enforcement initiative was unveiled by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez just as members of Congress were leaving Washington for their August recess. Mr. Chertoff said the initiative was not an effort to punish Congress for refusing to pass immigration reform legislation favored by the administration. At the same time, he said, "We can’t make Congress pass it (reform legislation). But we can be very sure that we let Congress understand the consequences of the choices that Congress makes."

The first element in the enforcement initiative is expansion of the Employment Eligibility Verification System, or the Basic Pilot program. Mr. Chertoff said the expanded program will be named E-Verify. The system currently compares information taken from I-9 employment verification forms, which establishes a person’s work eligibility, and matches it against records held in the Social Security and Homeland Security databases. About 19,000 employers participate in the voluntary program.

Legislation favored by the administration would have made the program mandatory. Mr. Chertoff said to give the voluntary program a boost, federal contractors receiving new federal contracts will be required to use the system, and vendors applying to supply Homeland Security will be given enhanced consideration if they participate.

Mr. Chertoff said beginning in September the Social Security Administration (S.S.A.) will mail about 15,000 letters weekly for 8 to 10 weeks to employers notifying them that Social Security numbers provided by individual employees do not match names and numbers in the S.S.A. database. This is done now, but at nowhere near the scale proposed. Additionally, employers bear increased responsibilities under the enforcement initiative.

Within 30 days of receiving a "no-match" letter from the S.S.A., the employer will be required to check its own records to determine if there was a clerical error. If there is none, the employer must require the employee to come forward with new reliable evidence he or she is eligible for employment. If no such new information is forthcoming within 90 days, the employer must fire the worker.

Penalties for employer noncompliance will be stiffer under the new initiative, Mr. Chertoff said. Civil fines imposed on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers will be raised about 25%, and criminal penalties will be sought in the case of chronic offenders.

Mr. Gutierrez provided a carrot to farm managers to accompany Mr. Chertoff’s stick in the form of a promise that the Labor Department would review and improve the H-2A seasonal farm worker program. The program in 2006 enabled farmers and ranchers to recruit about 59,000 immigrants to work temporarily on U.S. farms. The program places heavy responsibility on growers to recruit, transport and house immigrant workers. Current requirements discourage many growers from participating in the program.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, expressed support for the review of the H-2A temporary worker program.

"This is good news," he said. "The current H-2A program is inefficient and in many cases unattractive to growers who would like to use it. Any steps we can take that will make it timely and more efficient while protecting workers’ rights are positive and should be pursued."

At the same time, Mr. Stallman expressed concern about the imminent wave of "no-match" letters from the S.S.A. in view of the fact it was unlikely any changes in H-2A could be implemented this year.

Sharon Hughes, executive vice-president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said U.S. growers could be "walloped" in September, as the S.S.A.’s expanded no-match letter mailing will coincide with the peak of fruit and vegetable harvest across the Southern states.

"If employers can’t resolve no-match problems, they’ll be forced to terminate workers during harvest with no replacement labor in sight," she said.

She said the H-2A program brings in only about 50,000 immigrant workers a year, a miniscule number when compared with a need for 1.6 million to 2 million farm workers.

A spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers Association said, "We recognize the problem and want to be part of the solution, but increasing the burden for the industry will do little to improve the situation without comprehensive and meaningful reform."

Dave Ray of the American Meat Institute, Washington, said, "Our industry has been a steadfast and strong supporter of the Basic Pilot program, and we applaud efforts by the administration or Congress to strengthen this program and make it more effective."

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a proponent of immigration reform legislation and co-sponsor with Senator Larry Craig of Idaho of the AgJobs bill, was critical of the administration’s measures, warning they could result in a harvest catastrophe.

"There is not an administrative solution, and tinkering with regulations is not going to solve the problem ... Come September, farmers will find themselves without enough help just as the fall harvest begins," she said. "That’s why it is absolutely critical that we create a stable and reliable supply of labor. The price of inaction is too high."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 21, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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