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January 2002, Volume 8, Number 1

September 11 and Farm Workers 2002

The Food and Drug Administration issued voluntary guidelines urging criminal background checks on workers hired by food companies and farms to protect the US food supply from terrorists. Background checks make sense for truck drivers, who have control of food during shipment, but not for farm workers, according to Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

Many farm groups have conferences and seminars in the winter months. During the 2001-02 round of conferences, there were predictions that stepped-up border and law enforcement in the wake of September 11 might make it harder for unauthorized farm workers to live and work in the US, leading to "labor shortages."

The American Farm Bureau Federation, meeting in Reno in January 2002, called for a "one-time adjustment" of status for unauthorized farm workers in the United States.

Walter Kates, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association in Orlando, says "It could be a problem finding workers this year." The peak number of farm workers employed in Florida is estimated at between 60,000 and 233,000. Jim Beckley, of River Gold Inc., a Fort Pierce citrus harvesting company, said: "When the state's sugar industry went through legal problems with workers a few years ago, mechanical harvesting caught on real quick. It became cheaper to buy machines. Once that happens in citrus, you won't be able to build the machines fast enough."

The president of the New York Farm Bureau reported that the apple harvest continued until mid-November 2001 because of a shortage of workers. Daniel Inquilla, managing attorney for Farmworker Legal Services in Grand Rapids, also predicted that Michigan may face farm labor shortages in 2002.

A November 2001 Fresno conference concluded that the most worrisome outgrowth of September 11 for California growers is the possibility that tightened border security could choke off the flow of undocumented workers from Mexico. Unauthorized workers are reportedly worried about returning to Mexico for fear they will not be able to return to the US in 2002.

It is very difficult to evaluate claims of labor shortage, since there are many definitions. Most farmers define labor shortages as fewer workers available than they want to hire at current wages and working conditions- if the farmer wants a crew of 25 peach or raisin harvesters while paying $10 to $12 a 1000-pound bin for picking peaches or $0.25 for a 25-pound tray for raisins, and there are only 20 workers, then the farmer says there is a shortage of five workers. Workers pick an average six to eight bins of peaches a day, and 200 to 300 trays of raisins a day.

Most economists, by contrast, emphasize that employment depends on both supply and demand, so that 20 instead of 25 workers should lead to an increased piece rate. This increased piece rate could be expected to increase the supply of workers and dampen demand, as, for instance, growers decide not to re-pick a last time.

Border. There was a significant drop in apprehensions at the Mexico-US border, down 54 percent in October 2001 from October 2000 levels, from 82,632 to 37,811. There was a 40 percent drop in apprehensions in September 2001, to 59,276 from 97,744 a year earlier.

There appear to be three major reasons for the decline in apprehensions: (1) stepped-up border controls linked to post-September 11 events that have made or are perceived to make unauthorized entries more difficult and costly; (2) the end of the US harvest season and sharply rising US unemployment for low-wage nonfarm jobs; and (3) the sense in Mexico that the US may not be safe from additional terrorism or bio-terrorism.

There may also be a sense among unauthorized migrants that unauthorized foreigners will be less tolerated in the US, as exemplified by Attorney General Ashcroft's citing of Attorney General Robert Kennedy's 1960s war on organized crime that mobsters would be arrested for "spitting on the side walk." Many of those being arrested in the investigations of the September 11 attacks, and as airport workers are screened, are foreigners who had nothing to do with the attacks, but who are in violation of US immigration laws.

Potential unauthorized migrants, many of whom have some type of employment in Mexico, are likely waiting until after January 1, 2002 to decide if they are going to attempt unauthorized entry. In Oaxaca's Central Valley, potential migrants know about the US recession, but they also complain that carpet sales in nearby Teotitlan have fallen by 80 to 90 percent, so that there may be no choice but to migrate in 2002. But residents are aware of the high cost of living and the difficulty finding US jobs; one said: "I have spoken to 10 or 12 men here who say they are not going north for now because it is very expensive to live there without work."

Some unauthorized Mexicans in the US are returning voluntarily to Mexico. Mexico's National Migration Institute reported that 350,000 Mexicans returned between September 11, 2001 and early November 2001, and that another 150,000 were expected to return by the end of 2001. About 40 percent of returning Mexicans arrive at the international airport in Guadalajara.

Driver's Licenses. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, saying that driver's licenses "have become the 'de facto' national identification card used by law enforcement, retailers, banks and other establishments requiring proof of identification," announced plans to have every state issue high-tech cards with a fingerprint, computer chip or other unique identifier, and to link state databases. The AAMVA said: "There's no need to create a new national ID card. Let's just make what we have better."

The AAMVA may also help to standardize issuance procedures. Under a Virginia law that was changed after September 11, applicants for driver's licenses had to present only a notarized residency form, co-signed by a state resident, and a notarized identity form co-signed by a lawyer. Four of the hijackers obtained Virginia driver's licenses. New Jersey's Division of Motor Vehicles is considering linking its computers to the INS's SAVE (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements) database, now used by California and Wyoming to check the status of foreigners applying for driver's licenses; each look up costs the state $0.25.

A bill, AB 60, by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) would permit persons with a federal taxpayer number who could prove they were applying for legal immigration status to obtain a California driver's license. The bill may have become law without the governor's signature in October 2001 because of a legislative snafu. Cedillo's office estimates there are roughly two million foreigners driving in California without a license, which means they have not taken the driver's exam or obtained insurance.

Wells Fargo Bank, with 3,000 branches in 23 states, announced in November 2001 that it would accept Mexican government ID cards from people applying for bank accounts. Wells Fargo said that its Spanish-speaking staff would help all customers open accounts: "Wells Fargo does not focus at all on the legal status of our customers. Rather we focus on the forms of ID."

Martha I. Lara, Mexico's consul general in Los Angeles, began encouraging banks to accept Mexican ID cards to reduce robberies of Mexicans, many of whom carry large amounts of cash.

The INS said: "Our priorities are to go after illegal immigrants involved in committing crime. If they are law-abiding citizens, we don't have the resources to go looking for them." Police chiefs in Orange County approved plans to allow officers to accept Mexican ID cards as proof of identity for people detained for minor infractions.

Michael Virtanen, "Immigration crackdown called contributor to farm-labor shortage," AP, December 6, 2001. Andrew Meadows, "A Growing Problem," Tampa Tribune, Nov 19, 2001. Robert Rodriguez, "Terror war could touch growers," Fresno Bee, November 16, 2001. "Crackdown could create seasonal-worker shortage in Michigan," AP, November 5, 2001. Wes Sander, "Farmers struggle to find laborers," Marysville Appeal Democrat, July 21, 2001.