Labor crisis of perfect storm proportions brewing

The “perfect storm” as a result of a decade of failed federal immigration/farm labor reform policy is brewing and about to make landfall in the fields where America gets its food supply.

According to a pair of ag labor experts speaking recently at the 25th annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno, Calif., it is shaping up to be a storm of Hurricane Katrina proportions as Congress has once again faltered in addressing an issue that has far reaching implications for not just agriculture, but the workforce of America as well.

Washington, D. C., labor attorney and former Fresnan Monte Lake said while the immigration reform issue has swirled around agriculture for a decade, America’s construction and service industry face the same fate as agriculture unless meaningful immigration reform that includes a guest worker program is not soon enacted by Congress.

An estimated 90 percent of workers in all three industries are immigrants, most illegal and from Mexico, and as many as 90 percent of them are using forged documents to work in the United States.

Lake said immigration reform for the past decade has focused almost exclusively on enforcement and has failed to adequately address the need for an effective guest worker program and what to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants already in America.

The “best” the federal has come up with to this point is to approve the building of a 700-mile fence to keep illegal immigrants from crossing a 2,000-mile border. California State University economics professor Bert Mason, an expert in immigration policy and farm labor, called the wall a “sorry state of federal policy that is the only thing elected officials can come up with” to address one of the major issues in American society today.

What is ironic about the wall, compared to the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China, is that if and when it is ever built, it may be even more worthless than it is now being characterized.

Mason warned that the labor supply from Mexico may soon disappear with a dramatically declining birth rate in Mexico and an improving economy that entices workers to remain in Mexico rather than try to cross a border that has turned into a war zone.

Today the American-Mexico wage ratio is $8 to $1, but the Mexican economy is improving and the discrepancy is narrowing. Mason does not believe it must be balanced to reduce illegal immigration to keep Mexicans from crossing the U.S. border looking for work.

“There is no second generation of farm workers,” said Mason, explaining that children of illegal immigrants born in the United States are not becoming farm workers. And neither are the children who cross the border with their farm worker parents.

“I do not know which country will supply the next generation of farm workers,” but it will not be Mexico, Mason said.

And California needs farm workers, even in this era of rapidly advancing agricultural technology. The demand for farm workers has not dwindled in the past 25 years. Reports of labor shortages have been widespread this year in California, down 45 percent or higher. Crops went unharvested due to labor shortages.

Mason said California still needs about 400,000 farm workers each season. This represents about a third of the U.S. farm worker work force.

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