Texas state senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa remembers the day when he was five years old—picking tomatoes with his mother in the Rio Grande Valley. His mother, who was undocumented, was arrested and deported to Mexico. It took a year for her to gain legal residency and return to the United States.

Hinojosa’s father was an American citizen.

“A lot of people simply do not understand the culture of the border,” Hinojosa said during a labor issues panel discussion at the recent Texas Produce Association annual conference in San Antonio. “We have a long history of interaction with Mexico, back and forth.”

The problem, he added, is that government uses a “hatchet or an axe” approach to immigration instead of focusing on “people committed to work. The people up north don’t know what’s going on at the border,” he said. “Washington D.C. is out of touch with our needs on the border. They are willing to listen to rhetoric from a small minority and hurt small communities.”

Maids cross the Texas/Mexico border daily while border patrol agents, “look the other way. They are familiar with what happens locally,” he said.

“We need a guest worker program. I know we have the right to secure our borders. That’s a federal issue, but on a state level, we need to push for help.”

Instead, the Texas legislature has passed legislation to restrict the labor force.

“We have a short labor force that’s willing to do hard work,” Hinojosa said. “Agriculture, construction, hotels and other industries get employees from Mexico. That may not always be the case. In the future, we will not be able to depend on Mexican labor.”

Fewer Mexican workers

The birth rate in Mexico is declining. And more workers are staying home, partly because of improved job prospects in some areas but also because of border violence and immigration crackdowns.

Employers may have to look to Central America in the future to find labor, “when it’s no longer available in Mexico.

“The guest worker issue is, unfortunately, caught up with immigration reform.” He said the Bracero program worked well. (The Bracero program was initiated in August 1942 to bring in temporary contract laborers from Mexico to the United States. The program continued in agriculture until 1964.)

“A significant number of agriculture workers now are here illegally.” He also noted that legislation such as “show me your papers” may “create panic so that workers stay home, even some that are legal.”

States need to consider other options, he said. “Utah has a state-run guest worker program. States need permission from the federal government to enact such a program.” Hinojosa intends to introduce a bill for a guest worker program for Texas at the next legislative session (The Texas legislature meets every two years.). “We need more flexibility to run a program as needed.”

Hinojosa is not a fan of E-Verify, a system of electronic verification of a worker’s legal status. “It’s easy to defraud the system,” he said. He also said that verifying children’s status in schools “scares parents and keeps them from sending their children to school. That goes against our constitution,” he said. “Every child needs to be educated.”

The H-2A (a program to bring workers into the United States legally) is “too complicated,” to be effective for ag employers. And he reiterated that American workers will not do the back-breaking work required in agriculture.

Hinojosa said many immigrant farm workers’ children also will not follow their parents into the fields. “Many become doctors, teachers and professionals. Education is the key,” he said.

He recalls a day in the Valley, picking cotton, and looking from one end of a row to the other and thinking: “There has to be a better way than this.”

Education was his way to a better life.

He said the United States “can’t do much about the number of undocumented persons already in the country, but we need to take the word amnesty out of the conversation. It’s a red flag. But we do need reform.”

Serious problems exist on the border, Hinojosa said, including human smuggling and kidnapping. He said laws should address those problems with the focus on “coyotes” who bring in illegal aliens for high fees instead of those who try to bring in family members. He also pointed out that: “Some Mexican nationals buy residency. Some are with the cartels and some of them live in the Valley. It’s a serious problem.”

Hinojosa said the agriculture industry must “get involved. Talk to legislators and educate them. We don’t want fruit and vegetable production moved to other countries. We will be at their mercy.”