Rot in the Fields

Monday, December 3, 2007

CHECK OUT the asparagus you have for dinner, the cucumber in your salad and the pear on your plate for dessert. Chances are none would be there if not for the undocumented farmworkers who plant and pick most of the fruit and vegetables grown in this country. Nonetheless, faced with a serious and growing shortage of legal agricultural labor, Congress has followed the same playbook it has used for the broader issue of illegal immigration: political cowardice and empty slogans followed by inaction.

At least half, and possibly as many as 70 percent, of the 1.6 million farmworkers in America are undocumented immigrants, and their employers are painfully aware that there are not enough U.S.-born citizens and legal immigrants to do all the labor-intensive work they require. Agribusiness, farmworkers unions and enlightened lawmakers from both parties have pleaded for solutions, only to be foiled by congressional Republicans and swing-state Democrats who dare not support legislation that would provide undocumented farmworkers with a path to legalization -- the dread "amnesty" of 30-second attack ads.

By doing nothing to ensure a steady, reliable and sufficient labor force for farms, it's a good bet that Congress will make things worse, and soon. Faced with understandable public pressure to tighten border security, federal authorities have added personnel, technology and fencing to make it increasingly difficult for people to enter America illegally. Reports in the past year of vegetables and fruit rotting in fields and orchards for lack of hands to harvest them have failed to give Congress sufficient impetus to act. Look for the labor shortages, and instances of rotting produce, to grow more acute next year.

As Congress dithers, fair and balanced legislation to deal with the problem languishes. The so-called AgJobs bill would allow some 800,000 undocumented workers -- qualified farmhands who have been working here for several seasons -- to register, pay fines and legalize their immigration status by working in agriculture three to five more years before they could qualify for green cards. At the same time, it would provide a more sensible way to ensure an adequate supply of farm labor by streamlining the current H-2A visa program for agricultural guest workers, which is so cumbersome and unreliable that farmers use it for only an estimated 2 percent of all farmworkers.

Having failed to pass comprehensive immigrations reform this year, Congress has tried to deal with the problem piecemeal. The AgJobs piece is among the most critical. The realistic alternative to it is not arrest and deportation, as anti-immigration activists may imagine. It is the prospect of undocumented workers leaving the farms for higher-paying, year-round jobs in the cities; of a country increasingly unable to meet its own demand for food; and of hundreds of thousands of workers in a vital industry doing backbreaking work without basic employment protections. That amounts to a moral blight on America and an indictment of a political system incapable of fixing fundamental problems.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company