Friday, March 7, 2014
By John Flesher / The Associated Press
ATWOOD, Mich. — For northern Michigan fruit grower Pat McGuire, the most potent symbol of the immigration debate isn't grainy television footage showing people slipping furtively across the U.S.-Mexican border. Instead, it's plump red cherries and crisp apples rotting on the ground because there aren't enough workers to pick them — a scenario that could become reality over the next couple of months.
Patrick McGuire of Atwood, Mich., examines sweet cherries growing in his orchard recently. McGuire says a labor shortage caused by the immigration controversy is making it difficult for him and other Michigan fruit growers to harvest their crops.
Across the state's orchard belt, cherry trees already sag under the weight of bright-red clusters, yet many trailers and wood-frame cottages that should be bustling with migrant families stand empty. McGuire is waiting to hear whether crews will show up to pick his crop in mid-July.
"We're running out of time," he said, pulling aside leafy branches to inspect his ripening fruit on gently sloping hillsides a mile inland from Lake Michigan.
From Christmas tree growers in the Appalachians to Wisconsin dairy farmers and producers of California's diverse abundance of fruits and vegetables, agricultural leaders are pleading with Congress for an immigration bill that includes more lenient and less complex rules for hiring farm workers.
A measure that recently cleared the Democratic-led Senate contained provisions that the farm lobby said were promising. The Republican-controlled House is expected to take up the issue shortly. But with agriculture's once-mighty political influence in decline as its workforce has fallen to 2 percent of the population, it's uncertain how the industry will fare. Farmers' complaints about a shrinking labor pool are being overshadowed by the ideologically charged issues of border security and giving legal status to people in the country illegally.
McGuire, 42, a self-described conservative who usually votes Republican, was among representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation who made their case on Capitol Hill last week. His Michigan group went to the offices of eight lawmakers and to the Senate floor, buttonholing members or their staffers.
"Each office had their party speech," McGuire said, recalling one member's argument about border security. But the border must already be pretty secure, McGuire said, "because we don't have the labor in this country that we used to have."
Michigan farmers hire about 45,000 seasonal workers in the typical year, many of them immigrants. Some of the asparagus crop was left in the field this spring because too few pickers were available.
In neighboring Wisconsin, immigrant workers make up more than 40 percent of the hired labor force at increasingly large dairy operations, according to a 2008 University of Wisconsin study. Kevin Krentz, who milks 500 cows near Berlin, said finding enough help locally is a constant struggle.
"It's not a job that's 9-to-5," Krentz said. "It's a job that's done when the cows are fed, when the cows are milked, when the crops are harvested."
The situation poses a test for the House GOP, said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, a trade organization that represents the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona. A Republican who held several positions in the Reagan administration, Nassif said some in the party are so concerned about illegal immigration that they're trying to sabotage any chance for reform.
But if the House doesn't find something it can pass, he said, voters "are going to lose complete faith in the party's ability to legislate. All the national statistics show the American people believe in immigration reform."
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