By Anne Stanton
Eighteen years ago, the nations immigration law made it fairly easy for a farmer to hire migrant workers and simple enough for the workers to live in the United States legally. But current regulations amount to a monstrous buzz saw with a disastrous fall-out for everyone, said Old Mission Peninsula farmer Josh Wunsch.
Good farmers are stable people who require a strong team and the involvement of skilled knowledgeable people. Yet there are 8 million workers without acceptable documents, Wunsch said, quoting a policy statement from the American Farm Bureau.
He passionately argues for change.
The only legally viable way to hire a farm worker from outside the U.S. is through the H-2A program. In order to qualify, a farmer must test the labor market in accordance with federal regulations, which mandates, among a litany of other requirements, that the farmer register an advertisement with the state workforce agency, as well as publish ads in specific media with a specific dimension for a certain number of days, and to offer the federally determined prevailing wage for the specific job, said Traverse City attorney Joanna Kloet, who specializes in immigration issues.
RED TAPE HURDLES
There are numerous timelines and response deadlines to track. If, and only if, a qualified American doesnt apply for the job, can the farmer hire a foreign worker.
But theres an expensive caveat. Lets say that a farmer goes through all the regulations and ultimately does hire an immigrant worker. If an American shows up halfway through the work season and says he or she wants the immigrants job, the farmer must hire the American and fire the immigrant worker and then pay the airfare back to the immigrants home country. This is on top of paying for the flight into this country and 100% of housing costs, Kloet said.
Larger corporations, such as those that run confined animal feeding operations can afford to abide by the regulations, but smaller farmerssuch as those in Northwest Michiganfind it extremely difficult and expensive. Wunsch said that trying to abide by the program is like pouring money into a rat hole.
After months and months of lead time, we still dont get the workers, who, by the way, we have never laid eyes on and who have no experience. The program is so impossible, and we have to spend impossible sums of money to get us to absolutely nowhere. The system has finally become, dont ask, dont tell. If a 22-year-old comes to me, shows me his green card, I have to accept it on faith that its authentic, and I dont find out whether or not it is, until the next spring when the Social Security office tells me they have a mismatched number.
The H-2A program isnt great for the workers eitherthey can only work for the specific employer once inside the country and arent allowed to follow the picking season from farm to farm. Yet the migrant system has worked for decades, Wunsch said.
This group that we are so fond of denigrating and seeing as some kind of threat, this group has been very good at moving from spot to spot to spot according to where the work is, thats why we call them migrant workers. They show up when theyre needed, and vanish to the next gig when the need has ended--a unique and undervalued dimension of that skill set, Wunsch said.
The countrys insistence on booting out 8 million undocumented workers ignores the fact that 300 million people still need to nourish themselves with 900 million meals a day while maintaining a high standard of living and low prices, Wunsch said.
Every bad law has its fall-outs, and one in particular has to do with love, Wunsch said.
Young, undocumented workers often fall in love with their American friends. Wedding bells ring and children come into the picturechildren who are legal U.S. citizens, living with at least one illegal parent, and who live under the fear and threat of an imminent raid by immigration police.
To obtain legal status, the undocumented parent must pay an attorney large sums of money to petition for U.S. citizenship. But heres the catch. Because the parent entered the country illegally, he or she must go back to their home country and remain there for up to 10 years, depending on how long they lived in this country illegally (its called the unlawful presence bar). There are rare exceptions to this rule, Kloet said.
Its possible to get an extreme hardship waiver, and, unfortunately, the court rarely takes into consideration the presence of children (growing up without a parent) as an extreme hardship, Kloet said.
If a Mexican or any foreigner, for that matter, has left and re-entered this country illegally more than once, the 10-year bar cannot be waived.
Another challenge: immigration fates are not decided in a regular federal courthouse with an impartial judge. Instead these cases go to an immigration court, which is run by the Department of Justice. The prosecutor, arguing for the immigrants deportation, is employed by Homeland Security. Both agencies are in the purview of the executive branch, i.e., under the supervision of the U.S. attorney general. Thus, the adjudication can become very political. In these cases, the undocumented worker has no right to an attorney at government expense, and, frankly, most cant afford the $200 an hour attorney fees, Kloet said.
NO EASY ANSWERS
The immigration issue is huge and complex, which is perhaps why Congress has been paralyzed except for voting down The Dream Act, which would have given legal residency to immigrants who arrived in this country before the age of 16, have lived here for at least five years, graduated from high school, and completed two years of college or honorable military service. Notably, these candidates would still be barred from citizenship if they have a criminal record and wouldnt be eligible for federal grant scholarships.
Americans living in border states have suffered from organized crime and mayhem as a result of networks of coyotes transporting undocumented workers. The influx of huge numbers of migrant workers has bankrupted hospitals and schools, and has changed the entire culture and sense of security in border towns.
These problems seem far away to Northern Michigan, which has relatively small numbers of migrants compared to Arizona or Texas.
But thats not to say that migrant workers are unimportant to Northern Michigan farmers who need them, nor to the greater economy. Wunsch and his son sat down with pen and paper and calculated that a years worth of migrant labor generates $30,000 worth of public revenue. The analysis is lengthy, but to summarize, there is additional labor attached to 800 pounds of cherries picked daily, including transportation, refrigeration, processing, packaging, shipping, and retailing of the cherries, not to mention taxation and government regulation.
Those involved with the production of the food supply represent less than 2 percent of the population, and yet at the same time, in Michigan, 20% to 25% of the jobs are somehow related to the end of the food production process. The assumption that a person, with or without legal status, is taking someone elses job is false. The reality is they are creating jobs. They dont take jobs, they make jobs, Wunsch said