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The legal option

The existing H2A program could help farms stay robust and out of trouble



Farming is the No. 1 industry in central California. As farming goes, so does the rest of the local economy. It is extremely important to all of us that the farming industry remains healthy and vibrant.

Illegal immigration, which started as a trickle in the 1950s, has grown to a torrent in recent years, and has had both good and bad effects in our state. Obviously, it has helped farmers with a steady supply of workers. Unfortunately, the influx of these workers has also contributed to out-of-control housing growth within the state that is gobbling up prime farm land at an alarming rate of at least 74 square miles every two years.

Without immigration, California's population growth would nearly be stagnant. Sacramento, however, influenced by development interests, uses the influx of illegal immigrants to insist, using housing mandates, that each county and city provide for growth. These mandates remove growth issues from local control. Recent events seem to point out that the status quo is changing and farming interests need to be prepared for these changes.

The Department of Homeland Security in the United States recently released its Social Security "no-match" rule, which was scheduled to take effect in mid-September but has since been delayed while a federal judge in San Francisco considers the legality of the measure. The judge upheld a temporary restraining order on Oct. 1, and planned to make a final ruling in 10 days.

If the "no match" rule were allowed, the Social Security Administration

will start sending out letters to employers notifying them if an employee's name and Social Security number do not match. The net effect of this letter will be to give the employer constructive notice that he is employing "an unauthorized alien." Safe-harbor protections exist in the new rule that allows both employer and employee up to 90 days to correct any errors. The DHS wants employers to purge illegal immigrants from the workforce and have them work in legal programs currently available.

What is causing this new interest by administrations in securing borders in both Canada and the United States? The short answer is public opinion. Recent polls in the United States show that citizens want their national sovereignty protected, that 77 percent of Americans feel that employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens should be punished, according to an April L.A. Times poll. A New York Times/CBS News poll in May found that 66 percent favor a program that allows temporary workers in the United States but requires them to go home, and 69 percent feel that illegal immigrants should be prosecuted and deported. These poll numbers explain the recent actions of the Bush administration.

How can farmers and other employers legally get the workforce needed to harvest crops? The federal H-2A program is currently the only game on the table and has been on the books since 1952, but the huge flow of cheap illegal workers, especially in California, has made it gather dust. The program is designed to bring in seasonal foreign workers when domestic workers are not available. This program requires employers to provide worker housing, transportation, and to set wages prior to recruitment. The extensive application process will require even large farming concerns to obtain the help of experts to complete. Small farmers would probably have to work in co-ops to coordinate shared housing and the application process.

One obvious large expense in California would be housing, but a quick check with the California Farm Bureau assistant legal counsel reveals that housing can be either on farm property or existing housing stock, such as apartments that are rented. If any roadblocks exist in county zoning that prevent farmworker housing on farmland, they need to be removed now to help protect this industry in its transition to legal workers.

This program will provide a source of assured, legal workers, along with a stabilized work force from year to year, and could have the added advantage of stopping out-of-control, state-mandated growth that consumes farm land. The lengthy, complicated application requires California farmers, who are thinking of using it next season or the following season, to seek help from experts and start now!

Ken McCalip is a North Santa Barbara County native and former principal and superintendent. He can be reached at foxmt.one@verizon.net.


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