News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bush crackdown on undocumented workers may backfire

The Bush administration has announced new rules to get tough on illegal immigrants that will go into effect this fall. After looking at details of the crackdown, however, one wonders if the cure may not to be worse than the disease.

The plan calls for beefing up border security along with pursuing visa violators and illegal immigrants who are gang members. Well and good. But the overwhelming onus of the effort will fall on employers. Once in effect, these new measures will force many U.S. businesses to verify the social security number of workers against a government database—at the employer’s

expense. Any workers whose numbers do not match must be fired. A $10,000 fine per worker faces employers who do not comply. Have no doubt: We will all shoulder the costs as the burden for this additional red tape is passed along in higher prices for everything we buy—especially in agricultural products. But the real pain to our economy could go much deeper.

At a time when the nation is already experiencing labor shortages in agriculture, the danger of harvests rotting in the fields is very real. At least half the nation's farm workers lack valid Social Security numbers according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. “You'll put employers in the position of either firing workers or losing their crops," Craig Regelbrugge of the American Nursery and Landscape Association told the Wall Street Journal.

What’s the alternative? The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act—called AgJobs for short—allows experienced farm workers an opportunity to work legally with a temporary “Blue Card.” Once out of the shadows, these indispensable workers can apply for legal residence through conventional channels. The AgJobs program is capped at 1.5 million workers. However, this sensible and realistic approach has met stiff opposition from the chorus of “amnesty” screamers. Let’s hope Congress shows the backbone to enact this vital legislation. Otherwise, we may wake up to find tomatoes priced like caviar.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez