Troubled harvest

Washington's fruit industry is a hotbedof federal immigration policy gone wrong

 

WENATCHEE, Wash. - Chris Phillippi sits in his family's 95-year-old orchard, eating Fuji apples the size of softballs.

Phillippi, a 27-year-old sixth-generation orchardist, says changes came fast to this tawny valley east of the Cascade Mountains.

"When I was a kid, most of our warehouse labor was white, and you'd see letters in the paper condemning Hispanics that were moving here," he says. "But you don't see that so much anymore."

In part, he says, that's because an estimated 95 percent of apple-industry employees are Mexican and increasingly they stay in Wenatchee to offer their children a better life. Their presence is felt everywhere: The best places to eat are run by Mexicans, bilingual billboards advertise insurance agencies and legal services, and there are two Spanish newspapers and a Spanish radio station.

But although the Hispanic population is changing the face of eastern Washington, many of these newcomers remain undocumented. That means they are unable to vote and unable to obtain loans and university scholarships. When they go to find work, they must use false social security cards and fake driver's licenses.

"The status quo is basically an illegal system," says Mike Gempler, director of the Washington Growers League, a nonprofit group that represents farmers on labor issues. Gempler estimates that 70 percent of Washington fruit pickers and packers are undocumented immigrants.

"It's like everybody knows this and everybody's tolerating this system where the workers are using false documents and breaking the law," he says, "and the farmers are hiring people, not knowingly, but kind of, who are undocumented."

According to Gempler, current federal policy helps to perpetuate this illegal system. Potential workers must present two forms of identification to prove they have worker status, but farmers don't report this information to the federal government until taxes are due in April. It is only then, after the fruit-picking season is over, says Gempler, that farmers learn if their employees used fake or borrowed social security numbers.

Farmers need the help

In his Wenatchee office overlooking the Columbia River, orchardist Dave Mathison leans back in his chair and recounts how orchards in this valley have always depended on a transient workforce. The first workers were victims of the Dust Bowl - farmers from Oklahoma and Arkansas; then came itinerant hippies and even "winos from behind the taverns."

Mathison, whose extended family runs one of Washington's largest fruit-growing operations, says that while Hispanics have been working the fields for only 20 years, the roots of this migration started over 50 years ago. In 1942, the federal government gave temporary permits to Mexican farm workers because of World War II labor shortages. Even though the Bracero Program ended in 1964, Mexicans continued to cross the border and return to the farms they had come to depend on for work. Then as the Mexican economy declined, the trickle of workers became a deluge.

Mathison, who pays fruit pickers $7 an hour or $12 a bin, depending on the apple variety, says he's frustrated. The federal government helped provide this workforce, he says, but with the crackdown at the border (HCN, 10/9/00), the government is effectively taking that workforce away without offering any alternative solutions for American farmers.

"There's been lots of efforts to overhaul immigration bills and import seasonal workers and it never gets to a satisfactory level," he says. "We need a program we can actually use."

Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, say they recognize that the system isn't working and have been drafting legislation to offer orchardists such as Mathison and Phillippi some relief. Although their proposal could change slightly during the legislative session, in general, Joe Sheffo, who works in Smith's office, says the legislation's aim is to make it easier for farmers to recruit legal foreign workers and for the undocumented workers who are already in the country to obtain legal status.

Currently, when a worker applies for a "H-2A" or temporary work visa, it can take up to a year for the U.S. Department of Labor to process the paperwork. Under the senators' draft bill, as of Dec. 8, the Department of Labor would match Mexican workers with American farmers needing help. A legally hired worker could then cross the border. If an employee were fired, he or she would lose his or her permit and be deported.

In addition, Mexican workers already here could take steps to "earn citizenship," says Sheffo. Anyone who worked in agriculture for 150 days during a specified 12-month period would receive a temporary work permit and, after working for several more years, would become eligible for citizenship. Of the estimated 1.2 million migrant farmworkers, according to legislation supporters, 600,000 would qualify for temporary status.

"This is an attempt to reach out to migrant workers and farmworker groups," says Sheffo, who adds that of the slew of reform bills currently proposed, this is the only one that specifically addresses farmers' needs. For three years, Sen. Smith has been trying to garner support for the bill; this year, says Sheffo, he finally saw progress after working with groups such as the United Farm Workers of America.

Monte Lake, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer who represents farmers on labor issues, says the bill is the result of "tortuous negotiations" over the last year. Everyone in Congress who has dealt with this issue wants to put it to bed, he says. But, "we struck this deal and added the provision for adjusted status and now we have assurances the president will sign this."

In spite of the current election situation and the lame-duck session, Lake and Sheffo both predict the draft legislation will get attached to an appropriations bill before Congress recesses.

Amnistia es importante

But not everyone sees the bill as benign. "It will be a disaster if their bill passes," says Nieves Negrete of the nonprofit Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice. "It's indentured servitude. If the worker is tied to an employer for a permit, then the worker can't quit and go elsewhere if they're being abused."

Her group has teamed up with the United Farm Workers of America and the AFL-CIO to fight for citizenship for workers, regardless of their commitment to agriculture.

Negrete says that the bill isn't realistic. Many workers, or campesinos, will have difficulty proving a work record to be eligible for the temporary work permits, because "people who are undocumented live below the radar," she says. "In most all cases they can't prove where they've been."

It also would ignore illegal immigrants such as Elba Ramos Garcia, a single mother of three who has picked fruit sporadically for nearly a decade.

Since 1992, Garcia has lived in Warden, Wash., a small town bordered by orchards in the Columbia River Basin. Garcia says she lives in fear of deportation - her children are U.S. citizens, but at any moment she could be arrested and taken away from them. She's been trying to get citizenship, but, she says, the process takes forever. Garcia, whose parents and brothers all received amnesty in 1986, the last time a blanket amnesty was given to immigrants, says she has been hoping for a new amnesty bill for years.

"It's important for me because I have my kids, and it's more better for me to stay here because of the opportunity; the work in Mexico is terrible," Garcia says.

Although initially Garcia picked apples, as her language skills grew, so did her ability to find other work. Consequently, she only picked apples for a month this past summer - not enough to be eligible for amnesty under Smith's draft bill.

"(Fruit picking) is too hard for the ladies and the women - your fingers hurt, your back hurts; you work 10 hours a day and there's no bathroom in the orchards," she says. "People don't want to work in the fields unless they have to."

Antonio Rivera, a friend of Garcia's, who has just gotten a job working for the United Farm Workers Union, says that the more humane alternative is to give people like Garcia citizenship - or amnesty - regardless of their commitment to agriculture.

"We grow this economy," says Rivera. "Amnesty es muy importante because when the people don't have citizenship, they don't have nothing. They can be fired, they don't have benefits and they can do nothing about it."

No more Band-Aids

Jose Ybarra of the State of Washington Employment Security Department says both amnesty and Smith's reform bill are Band-Aid solutions.

"Ag business is still operating in the feudal times," Ybarra says. Employers wouldn't have to depend on an inflow of illegal workers and worry about worker shortages, if they would provide benefits and opportunities for job growth. But even this will fail, he says, unless the federal government takes a realistic look at the root of the problem: Mexico's economy.

There is such poverty in Mexico that, with or without a permit, people will keep crossing the desert in search of better jobs - unless, he says, we find a way to "grow the economy of our neighbors."

Rather than spending millions of dollars on floodlights, border barriers and the war on drugs, Ybarra says, America should invest money in the economies of Mexico and South America: "To depend on a foreign workforce the rest of our lives like we've been doing is stupid."

 

Rebecca Clarren is an assistant editor for High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Washington Alliance for Immigrant & Refugee Justice, 303 E. D Street, #2B, Yakima, WA 98901 (509/453-4530), www.wairj.org;
  • Sen. Gordon Smith, 404 Russell Office Building, Washington, DC 20510 (202/224-3753), www.senate.gov/~gsmith.