The United States is losing fruit and vegetable market share in large part because of labor issues, including an immigration system that’s clearly broken.

“One-third of the nation’s fruit and about one-fifth the vegetables are already imported,” says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

Regelbrugge, speaking at the annual Texas Produce Convention recently in McAllen, said agriculture needs a guest farm worker program that works. “We need a system that allows a transition to permanent status.”

He said permanent does not necessarily mean citizenship.

Regelbrugge put the problem into focus. Of 1.6 million serious farm workers in the United States, 80 percent are foreign born, and of those 70 percent are unauthorized. He said less than 2 percent of ag jobs nationally are filled by H-2A workers (a program that helps bring legal workers into the country for short periods, but one that is criticized as expensive and highly regulated).

The Texas ag work force consists of less than 1 percent H-2A workers; Georgia has less than 10 percent.

Regelbrugge said unauthorized worker numbers have increased from 1989, when just 7 percent admitted to illegal status. In 1994, that percentage had risen to 34. In 1998 it was 52 percent. “Now, it’s at least 70 percent,” he said.

One of six ag workers leaves the job each year, meaning one of six every year is a new worker, Regelbrugge said. “Of those, 99 percent are unauthorized.”

The reason, “lack of legal channels,” he said. “The system is broken.”

He said illegal workers run the gamut from single males with no interest in establishing citizenship or remaining in the country to workers who have been in the country for years, have families and possibly positions of responsibility with employers.

Solutions for groups within the spectrum must be different, Regelbrugge said. “We have to allow people to find where they fit instead of trying to impose the stupid one-size-fits-all solution.”

In some cases, he said, workers need a transition to permanent status.

The broken system has contributed to a labor shortage. “In 2006, Northern California lost one-fourth of a pear crop. In 2007, Michigan lost $1 million worth of asparagus.”

He said a recent Texas survey indicated more than 75 percent of producer respondents indicated they would consider downsizing operations because of labor shortages. More than one-fourth were moving production out of the United States. More than one-third were considering moving out of the country. And some shut down operations.

He said immigration reforms, including AgJOBS and the Emergency Agriculture Relief Act could help. Some proposals would reform H-2A, streamlining the process, overhauling the legal aspects, simplifying the program, and bringing wage relief.

“It would also provide a blue card to experienced ag workers and allow them to pay a fine and have a chance to earn legal status. As many as 1 million workers qualify.”

Regelbrugge said individual states can’t solve the problem on their own, “but border states have unique challenges.”

He said the immigration reform debate in Congress “is ugly. But Congress sees agriculture differently from other industries. Food policy is part of our national security and we have long enjoyed bipartisan support. We have dedicated political champions,” he said. “Diane Feinstein, for instance, is a great advocate.”

He said neither party’s presidential candidate has taken a strong stance on immigration reform, but that Barack Obama faces less risk than does John McCain by supporting reform. He said both have supported AgJOBS.

Challenges include union resistance to guest ag worker programs. Other challenges include “an epidemic of state and local laws,” and a tendency to blame employers as “the common denominator. And each element in any solution will be controversial. Broad bipartisan support will be essential and agriculture must be ready to move alone or as part of a bigger package.”

Regelbrugge said the Bush administration effort at immigration reform has concentrated on “enforcement-only legislation. That can’t fix it.”

He said an immigration bill, HB 4088, has nearly 200 cosponsors.

“We have to have a grassroots movement and political education,” Regelbrugge said. “We need favorable media attention and passionate community outreach. We also need support for the national effort, both of money and time.”

He said a big problem continues to be public perception. “A key challenge is that the issue is emotional and people are misinformed. The extreme end of the opposition (may be) racist,” he said. “The key issue is to appeal to a sense of fair play, real solutions, assimilation, and integration. We all want our borders to be secure and we want people who commit crimes to be held accountable.”

email: rsmith@farmpress.com