Monday, July 21, 2008

States balk at federal order to check farm workers' papers; labor shortages rising with enforcement

"Some states are balking at a federal effort to require them to screen potential farm hands for immigrant violations before referring them to jobs," Shannon Dininny writes for The Associated Press. Most states dislike a new rule that does not come with money to pay for the verification work, and some say they cannot work with the federal verification system. Some say the requirement illegally targets a particular class of workers. "Everyone's unspoken concern: That weeding out illegal workers could leave crops to rot in the fields," Dininny writes.

Worker shortages are developing nationwide, with rising federal crackdowns on immigration violations. Farmers, fearing hefty fines for employing illegal workers, are seeking more H-2A visas for "guest workers," available if they can prove a shortage of local workers. Washington aspen-nursery owner Mike Stephens calls the program a "bureaucratic nightmare" but says it remains his "best option for getting workers who stay." About 77,000 foreign workers were hired by U.S. farmers through the program last year.

Nearly 70 percent of the farmers and food packers using guest workers are in 12 states. The AP found that only four of these states -- Texas, Montana, Kentucky and Tennessee -- committed to meeting the new requirement by March, four months after the letter, and Kentucky and Tennessee said they disagreed with it. Utah, Virginia and Louisiana have since signed up reluctantly. Virginia and Louisiana did so because the Labor Department threatened to slash money for their offices. North Carolina, New York and Colorado officials haven't decided, and California claims that it meets the requirements by asking workers if they are legal and reviewing documents without confirming their validity. Idaho refuses to comply until the Labor Department agrees to hold the state safe from discrimination lawsuits.

"We support the states not participating in this," says Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest director for the United Farm Workers of America. "It's very frustrating that on one hand, the Labor Department and the Bush administration want to take additional punitive measures against farm workers and growers, while at the same time won't take any steps to remedy the situation with real reform." Agriculture groups, including those who sought the change, say the brunt of the task should not fall on farmers and food packers. "I just wish they could work something out so that we're not caught in the middle," Stephens told Dininny.

Federal officials told state labor agencies in November that workers' documents must be verified before they can return to the fields to work. "Some states immediately recoiled from the proposal, citing their shrinking budgets, burgeoning workloads and the potential for discrimination," Dininny writes. The Labor Department expects states to submit an I-9 form or to confirm immigration status through E-verify, a federal computer system that has faced criticism because it is riddled with errors. Read more here.

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