“What happened to me will happen to growers and producers all over the country, except they won’t have the resources to survive it,” southern California tomato grower Luawanna Hallstrom told Congress at a hearing held last week by the House Education and Workforce Committee. Hallstrom, a large producer of vine-ripe tomatoes, farms on a military reservation. After Sept. 11, 2001, her company’s workforce was subjected to electronic verification of identity and work eligibility, and the company lost 75 percent of its labor force overnight.
Extensive advertising found virtually no American workers available and willing to work the harvest, so Hallstrom’s company was forced to enter into the H-2A guest worker program. By the time the first workers arrived, over $2.5 million worth of crops had rotted in the fields.
Asked whether American workers might be found, Hallstrom said, “Americans do not raise their children to be farm workers but aspire for higher education and upward mobility.” She went on to describe an ambitious effort to recruit domestic workers to fill seasonal agricultural jobs in eight rural counties compromising the San Joaquin Valley of California in the late 1990’s. At that time, agricultural organizations sought the assistance of state and county Social Services departments to recruit persons to work in agriculture. Of the 137,000 able-bodied candidates identified by the welfare agencies in the San Joaquin Valley, only 503 applied for work and only three actually showed up to work, said The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
The Education and Workforce Committee hearing offered an opportunity for witnesses and testimony to cover a broader range of views than those featured in many other recent House hearings. “We are grateful that Chairman McKeon (R-CA) selected a farmer with a wealth of experience and insight to share her story and the realities confronting agriculture” said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers Association.
Hallstrom’s testimony painted a picture of an industry deeply at risk if Congress fails to approach immigration reform in a comprehensive way. She spoke of labor shortages that are already occurring nationwide, from the California and Arizona borders through California’s Central Valley to Michigan and Florida, and urged Congress to move to the negotiating table to produce a good final immigration reform package. Hallstrom said, “Agriculture has been actively encouraging Congress for the past 10 years to fix the broken immigration system and provide our vital industry a means to obtain a legal workforce. We cannot wait another year.”
The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform is the broad national coalition representing more than 150 national, regional and state organizations whose members produce fruit and vegetables, dairy, nursery and greenhouse crops, poultry, livestock and Christmas trees.