An article yesterday incorrectly said the Labor Department must certify that American workers would not be displaced before certain immigrants can become legal U.S. residents. Such certification is required when U.S. growers seek to bring temporary workers into the United States. The story also should have identified Washingto Gov. Booth Gardner as a Democrat. (Published 6/17/87)
PORTLAND, ORE. -- Besieged by reports of a potentially devastating agricultural labor shortage, officials in the Pacific Northwest have begun to appeal for help from prison and National Guard authorities and are considering going as far as Texas to seek temporary workers.
Many growers in Oregon and Washington blame confusion and fear generated by the new Immigration Reform and Control Act for what they describe as a migrant labor shortage that may cost them millions of dollars. Spokesmen for the governors of both states say other factors, including an unusually large and early strawberry and cherry harvest, may have also hurt. In any case, they say, they may have only half the workers they need.
"We are very concerned about it," Floyd McKay, administrative assistant to Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt (D) said Friday. "The new law may be keeping away some people who usually work, and keeping some growers who usually hire from hiring them."
The law allows aliens who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 90 days in each of the last three years and lived here for at least six months of each year to apply for permanent residence. Other temporary agricultural workers may apply under more severe restrictions.
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who helped draft the those rules, said Friday that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico had failed to process completely "any of 4,000 applications it has received from potential workers."
State Department spokesman Ruth van Heuven said U.S. posts in Mexico have received about 8,000 requests for information, and 1,500 of those persons have asked for applications, but no one has called for an interview appointment. She said the program was not publicized until early May, shortly after regulations to implement the new law were completed. and that the 1,500 applications requested were mailed out just last week.
"We are ready, willing and able to process, but we can't do it," she said, until the Labor Department certifies that the workers would not displace U.S. workers and the Immigration and Naturalization Service gives its approval.
Goldschmidt has discussed the worker shortage with growers he met while picking strawberries with his family. In the last two weeks, he held a news conference to announce a public information campaign, particularly on Spanish-language radio, emphasizing that workers uncertain about their immigration status are in no danger of arrest if they come out to pick fruit. Washington Gov. Booth Gardner (R) also held news conferences in western Washington to spotlight the need for workers and allay confusion about the law.
Ricardo R. Garcia, a Spanish-language radio station manager in Granger, Wash., with long ties to the migrant worker community, said he is wary of growers' reports of a labor shortage. He and Dolores Huerta, first vice president of the United Farm Workers said they suspect growers want to create an impression of a shortage so they can import more cheap workers from Mexico under a provision of the new law.
INS officials met with Washington state officials over the weekend and suggested looking in Texas for unemployed people willing to fill the gap.
"If Texas or California proves to have people, we're going to do our darnedest to get them," said Bruce Blotka, deputy press secretary to Gardner. He said he doubts there are enough workers in the Northwest, although he noted potential problems in finding housing for an influx of outsiders.
Blotka said 50 to 80 percent of the state's perishable crops is picked by migrant workers, and losses could be severe if laborers are not found in time. He said state officials are encouraging liberal leave policy for National Guard troops who want to join picking crews. State unemployment offices and early prisoner release programs are being informed of the need.
Roy Malensky, owner of the Oregon Berry Packing Co. in Hillsboro, 17 miles west of here, said he chartered a bus to Eagle Pass, Tex., where state unemployment officials said he could find hundreds of eager workers. He said he found only 21, all of whom either quit or were so slow and inexperienced that he had to subsidize their pay, usually based on the amount they pick, to make sure they earned the minimum wage.
"When we get to other crops," he said, "it's just likely to get worse." Other growers are using more-experienced undocumented workers who can work at a rate that earns them twice the minimum wage or more, but they are in shorter supply, he said.
State officials said some Hispanic workers have said their friends and relatives fear arrest or deportation under the new immigration law that took effect last month. The law provides fines and possible jail sentences for employers who persistently and knowingly hire illegal aliens. It also allows illegal immigrants who arrived before 1982 to apply for amnesty and become legal residents.
Mike Henry, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers have encountered "spot shortages" of labor at cherry-picking and peach-tree-thinning sites, but not of the scale reported in the Northwest. He said workers in California report that many of their relatives are staying home to complete the paper work on their amnesty applications before going to work. The peak harvesting season in California does not come until late summer, he added.