Thanks to increased border security, and competition from other industries offering better pay and working conditions, Southwestern farmers are facing a severe shortage of workers this winter. It’s so bad that some political leaders — including President George W. Bush — are beginning to talk beyond party lines and look at immigration reform.

The Western Growers Association says its 3,000 member farmers need another 20,000 workers in southwestern Arizona and California’s Imperial Valley to pick this winter’s crops. Without those workers, the association warns, unpicked vegetables may be left to rot in the fields. More than 90 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown in the Southwest, and the work force that harvests them consists mostly of migrants, most of them illegal (HCN, 9/19/05: In the orchards, questions about immigration reform).

On a swing through the Southwest in late November, and again during his State of the Union address at the end of January, President Bush urged stronger border security, but also defied some in his own party by calling on Congress to pass a guest-worker program that would allow migrant laborers to work in the United States for a renewable three-year period before they are forced to return to their home countries. Critics of the idea say a guest-worker program would take jobs away from Americans and open the door to amnesty.

Many farmers dispute the notion that relying on cheap illegal labor takes jobs away from Americans. "I could advertise until I’m blue in the face; I don’t get any Americans," says Ed Curry, a chile farmer in southeastern Arizona.