University of California farm labor advisor Gregorio Billikopf shares his views on what enforcement of the Social Security No-Match Letter rule will mean for agriculture. The rule takes effect Sept. 14.
SAFE HARBOR NOT SO SAFE
Growers and producers have had to deal with an ever increasing amount of regulations. The “Social Security No-Match letter” has the potential of becoming one of the most devastating challenges American agriculture has faced in decades. If this regulation is truly enforced, and if provisions for immigrant labor are not streamlined or established, farm operators will be scrambling for labor. The words “labor shortage” will take on a whole new meaning.
There is nothing comforting about the “safe harbor” concept. A safe harbor suggests that if farm employers follow certain steps, they will make sure undocumented workers are not employed, and thus they will be protecting themselves from potential fines. And so it is. But I suspect the percentage of documented agricultural workers is miniscule. So where is the benefit to agriculture of finding a safe harbor where producers end up proving that the people they have hired are undocumented? Who is going to prune, harvest, drive farm equipment, feed livestock, and milk cows? While I do see a number of loopholes in the regulation, the bottom line is that year round employment or rehire of loyal returning seasonal workers will be discouraged. Unless, of course, employees return with a different name.
I fear that the most visible, well paying farm operators, who hire directly rather than through farm labor contractors (FLCs), may be most vulnerable. Many of these have a loyal workforce of well paid returning seasonal workers as well as a steady force of year round employees. It will be much easier for some of these FLCs to hire the same person with a different name than for the more established farm operators.
Loopholes and poor design are synonymous with IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Farm employers at the time were afraid they might be stuck being a documents’ expert. Producers, however, were told not to worry, to simply use the 100 foot rule: “If a document looks legal 100 feet away, treat it as legal.” While that may sound funny now, there is nothing funny about the safe harbor process. What is needed is a comprehensive approach to immigration issues where worker dignity is preserved and employers are able to farm. Such a process would not be able to function if it is cumbersome and unresponsive to agriculture’s fluctuating seasonal needs.
Immigration policies that would forbid workers from returning after working a number of years does not recognize the need for trained people. Nor does it acknowledge the needs of the immigrant family. The children of most immigrants quickly lose their ability to speak their parent’s language. It would be quite traumatic for these children to return to a culture that is completely foreign to them. We are not just speaking about immigrants who help with the harvest of crops here, but those who have year round positions driving farm equipment or working with livestock, many of whom have established deep roots in the community over the years.
Furthermore, an immigration policy will never work if the employer does not have the tools— and is expected to use them —to determine an applicant’s legal status at the time of employment. Anti-immigrant and anti-agriculture sentiments have been mounting over these divisive issues. The only good solutions will have to be thought out carefully, and be ones that are sustainable. The parties need to sit down and come to potential solutions that truly meet the needs of those involved and are realistic to agricultural requirements. Before such solutions can be developed, the needs of the parties must be truly understood. The worst thing that could happen would be another law that only works because the loopholes are big enough. The competitive edge of American agriculture is at stake.
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