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Farms need legalized seasonal help, not a handful of felons

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Nov. 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
November 7, 2011 5:42 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

The connection between illegal immigration and agriculture has been blindingly obvious for decades, but apparently not obvious enough for some.

An apparent decline in the number of migrant farm workers has been hitting Washington orchardists hard – hard enough that Gov. Chris Gregoire has gamely experimented with prison labor. She recently dispatched 105 volunteer inmates from the state’s mininum-security work camp in Clallam County to harvest apples at an orchard in Eastern Washington.

A long-term solution, this is not. Washington’s farmers need thousands, not hundreds, of laborers. For many years, the majority of them have been illegal aliens, mostly from Mexico.

Recent state crackdowns on illegal immigration have driven some of them away. The clearest case of cause-and-effect is found in Alabama, whose farmers have been thrown into a labor crisis by the legislature’s recent take-no-prisoners offensive against illegal aliens.

Alabama lawmakers must not spend much time on Alabama farms.
Zero-tolerance enforcement isn’t the only issue. America’s recession-stricken economy just isn’t the magnet for border-jumpers it once was. By some estimates, the net influx of illegal immigrants across the Southern border is now approaching zero.

Whether farm workers are lying low voluntarily or involuntarily, American farmers of undisputed legality still need real human beings to harvest their apples, cherries, asparagus, peaches and whatnot.

The only realistic solution is to expand and streamline the country’s H-2A visa program, which is designed to accommodate seasonal cross-border migrations of farm workers.

Some “advocates” of illegal immigrants – including employers hungry for cheap, docile labor – aren’t particularly interested in a solution in the first place.

Others prefer a comprehensive reform that includes legalization of most of the 11 million people in the country illegally. But there’s no way that’s going to happen in the depths of an economic distress that has thrown millions of American citizens out of work. The choice is between doable part-solutions and no solution.

Congress should deal now with the issue of farm labor – something doable – and loop back to the larger problem later when there’s some chance of settling it.

There should be little partisan dispute over H-2A visas, carefully and humanely administered.

Authorities would know who the laborers are and what they are doing here. The workers could be screened for criminal backgrounds. They would know they could come back legally after going home, so they’d got a strong incentive to play by the rules.

It’s not amnesty. It’s not making citizens or even permanent residents of law-breakers. It’s just letting farmers get their crops in by legally recognizing a seasonal migration that is already a foundation of U.S. agriculture.

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