Western Growers' officials announced yesterday the association's strong opposition to the recently announced Department of Homeland Security (DHS) no-match rules in light of the fact that the need for legal labor has not been addressed.
"We want and expect the government to enforce the laws, but when a system is broken and unworkable, we have the right to expect the U.S. Congress to address and resolve these vital issues," said Western Growers' President and CEO Tom Nassif.
Additionally, he said, "We know and have told the government that much of agriculture's workforce is falsely documented. We are one of the only industries in this country that has been forthright with the fact that much of our workforce is illegal and have pleaded with the government to pass laws to address this problem. Instead of securing a legal, stable workforce for agriculture, these rules will make it even more difficult for farmers throughout Arizona, California and the entire nation to find workers to harvest and process the crops all Americans enjoy."
The DHS rule gives an employer who receives a mismatch letter 30 days to examine his own records to see if the deficiency can be cured. If the error lies in the employer's records, he must notify SSA of the correct information. If the error cannot be resolved by reference to the employer's records, he is required to give the employee 90 days to resolve the problem.
At the end of the 90-day period, the employer must complete a new I-9 form for the employee with updated I-9 documentation or to fire the employee.
"This shortsighted ruling by DHS does nothing to fix the problem," Nassif said. "In the short term, we are going to see workers fleeing their workplace just prior to the 90-day time limit and beginning anew at a different farm. This cycle could go on for a long time, furthering the instability of agriculture's workforce.
"Secondly, these rules could expedite the move of American farms abroad. The fact is, our food is going to be picked by a foreign workforce. The question is, will they be harvesting our food here under heavy regulation ensuring our food supply is as safe as scientifically possible, or is it going to be in places like China where regulations are, in some cases, nonexistent?"
The DHS rules could have a substantial impact on agriculture as soon as this fall, Western Growers said.
"No-match" letters normally sent to employers in the spring have not yet been sent, but in announcing the new rule, federal officials said that the 2007 notices could be sent within the next 30 days. Receipt of the no-match letters begins the 90-day period for resolution of the problem or termination of the employee.
"Agriculture is not asking for permission to employ an illegal workforce; we are asking for our federal government to pass common-sense laws that allow the American farmer to continue farming in America," Nassif said. "We have made our case and have received broad support from both sides of the aisle for AgJOBS, which would go a long way toward fixing agricultures broken guest-worker program. It is our hope that legislators and this Administration realize the need for agriculture and pass AgJOBS this year. Our domestic food source is depending on it."
Western Growers is an agricultural trade association whose nearly 3,000 members grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in California and 75 percent of those commodities in Arizona. This totals about half the nation's produce.