Visa reform could improve border security

Jun 17, 2011
by DTN

Arizona sits at the crossroads of two vital issues for two different sectors of agriculture: Produce growers need immigration reform to stay competitive, while ranchers need tighter border security to feel safe.

The Arizona Farm Bureau thinks one could help achieve the other.

“If you make a way for people to come through the gates, they’re not going to come around the gates,” said Joe Sigg, Arizona Farm Bureau’s director of government relations. If workers can enter the country legally, it allows Border Patrol to focus on pursuing criminals. “Drugs and the drug cartels are our major issue. We’re only talking about border security these days, and no one appears to be wanting to talk about visa reform.”

Agriculture needs visa reform, which is one part of comprehensive immigration reform, to end a labor supply shortage that’s partially a result of the cumbersome H-2A visa growers must use to legally hire foreign labor. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined President Barack Obama last week to call for renewed conversation on immigration reform.

But many view comprehensive immigration reform as politically toxic, especially with an election year coming up, and prefer better border security and stiffer penalties for employers who use illegal labor.

Congress is poised to mandate that all businesses check the work eligibility of new employees using E-Verify, a web-based authentication program. But without accompanying immigration reform, mandatory E-Verify could result in an even tighter ag labor supply.

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, R-AZ, introduced legislation in April to tighten border security. Obama said in a speech in El Paso on immigration that 2007’s immigration reform efforts crumbled amid chants of “borders first, borders first.” He said his administration has satisfied, even exceeded, those demands.

“Now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that.

That’s politics,” Obama said.

Secure the border at the border

The president’s words infuriated Gary Thrasher, a veterinarian in Hereford, AZ. Suspected drug smugglers murdered Arizona rancher Rob Krentz last year, and now many ranchers won’t leave the house unarmed for fear of a confrontation with drug traffickers desperate to protect their $10 billion a year enterprise. Many ranchers feel current security efforts leave ranchers, already vulnerable because of their ranches’ remoteness, exposed to the most dangerous elements crossing the border.

Thrasher thinks Border Patrol should focus on keeping people from crossing in the first place.

The U.S.-Mexico border stretches 1,969 miles from the beach in San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico. Only 15 percent—129 miles—of the border can be defended at the international boundary line, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Border Patrol can respond more effectively to illegal entry on another 744 miles, but that’s within a zone that stretches up to 100 miles north.

McCain and Kyl’s 10-point plan would address those concerns by hiring 5,000 more Border Patrol agents, giving hardship duty pay to agents assigned to remote areas, building more forward-operating bases, and increasing surveillance systems, including adding two unmanned aircraft. The bill, currently in committee, would increase funding for communications technology, build a double-layer fence, and support state and local prosecutors pressing charges against illegal immigrants.

It also increases funding for Operation Stonegarden, a popular grant program that helps finance state and local law enforcement.

Expand National Guard presence

Everyone DTN spoke with for this series agreed the National Guard made the border more secure. Obama deployed 1,200 National Guard troops last summer. Patrick Bray, executive vice president for Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said the National Guard provided vital intelligence and infrastructure that allowed Border Patrol to focus on apprehensions while adding new agents.

John Boelts, who grows lettuces, melons, durum wheat, barley and cotton on 1,500 irrigated acres in Yuma, AZ, said with National Guard patrols stationed one mile apart in Yuma’s flat landscape, illegal border crossings dropped off drastically.

“I had wheat fields the preceding year that had so many tracks across them from people running through the field that a quarter of the wheat field was damn near trampled. You start looking at the tracks, and you’re like, ‘My God, this is a busy place at night,’” he said.

The current National Guard presence is set to end in June, although U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said in congressional testimony that her office will reprogram funds to maintain the troop level.

In a press release, McCain called for the president to maintain the troop level, but pointed out that his bill would require 6,000 National Guard troops. The total price tag of McCain’s bill is just over $1.75 billion, and it’s unclear if the costs would be offset elsewhere.

Labor shortage forcing farms south

Boelts recognizes the night-and-day difference between Yuma’s border security and areas 100 miles to the east. Border Patrol has better operational control of Yuma than any other sector, according to the GAO report.

“My colleagues who work in agriculture, but on the ranching side, they live in hell every day, and I really have a lot of empathy for them,” he said. He believes more should be done to secure the border in those areas, but changes in immigration policy that provide a legal and reliable workforce would act as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

From Thanksgiving to Easter, Yuma needs about 50,000 workers to pick the winter lettuce crop, with half coming from south of the border. But the produce industry is still short on labor.

To get an H-2A visa, the current legal pathway to hire foreign farm workers, an employer must go through four government departments sequentially, prove they tried to hire Americans first, and provide housing.

Wendy Fink-Weber, a spokeswoman for Western Growers, an industry group for California and Arizona produce farmers, said they estimate 70 percent of the agriculture workforce may be undocumented, falsely documented, or otherwise working illegally, like cross ing the border with a visitor pass to go to work. Many Yuma farm workers commute from Mexico this way.

“The truth is, even when farmers make their best effort to recruit a domestic workforce, few citizens express interest, in large part because this is hard, tough work,” Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters.

“Simply put, our broken immigration system offers little hope to our producers trying to do the right thing and make a living.”

Boelts said he pays his employees more than $9 an hour, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25. Labor costs—Mexican farms pay 25 percent of what Americans pay—and H-2A complications have contributed to a 25 percent decrease in Yuma crop acreage in the last seven years, Boelts said, with many farms relocating to Mexico.

E-Verify flawed, harmful without reform

Boelts uses E-Verify to check all new hired workers’ neligibility to work in the U.S. The Supreme Court voted recently to uphold the Arizona law requiring all employers to use E-Verify, a move that makes a federal E-Verify mandate more likely.

A federal mandate would tighten the ag labor supply, especially if it’s not accompanied by visa reform, Sigg said.

“It will push employment further underground than it is already. Across the board, it will push employers to hire off the books and under the table, and encourage employees to use fraudulent documents,” he said.

E-Verify only checks to make sure all identifying information is valid. If 100 people present the same identifying information at 100 different employers, E- Verify will say that all 100 people are cleared for work. “And without detecting fraud, it’s not ultimately going to address the problem it’s supposed to,” Sigg said.

In fiscal year 2010, the administration doubled the number of worksite enforcement investigations and imposed approximately $59 million in financial sanctions against employers hiring illegal workers.

With cash seizures up 75 percent, drug seizures up 31 percent, and apprehensions of illegal immigrants down, Vilsack said security on the border is moving in the right direction. Now, it’s time to focus on ag’s need for constant labor supply.

“All of that is important, all of that is necessary, but in reality, that is not enough. It’s not enough to simply secure the border. There needs to be a comprehensive immigration system that deals with the 12 million people that are here, many of them who are working our farm fields,” Vilsack said. “All of this is tied to ultimately getting an immigration system that works, that allows the farmers and ranchers of this country to be confident that they will always have the workforce they need to get the job done.” — DTN