Fla. farmers warn of crisis if undocumented workers taken away

John Lantigua

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 6 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Florida farmers, worried that lawmakers could strip them of their largely undocumented workforce, are warning of an impending crisis in their fields.

Those growers admit that at least 75 percent of their workers are in the U.S. illegally. Most of those workers buy fake Social Security cards and employers generally issue paychecks and deduct payroll taxes and Social Security taxes which they attribute to those false numbers. In that way employers fulfill their legal obligation. They are not obliged to check if the numbers are legitimate.

But a bill now before the Congress, the Legal Workforce Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would require all employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the legitimacy of those numbers and not hire illegal workers.

Smith said his program would "provide growers who want to do the right thing with a reliable source of legal labor" and would also "protect the livelihoods of American workers and the rights of guest workers."

Agricultural interests nationwide and other business groups have opposed Smith's bill, and chances of its passage are questionable.

But Florida farmers are still worried. In Alabama, farmers and tourism industry leaders opposed the adoption of E-Verify there, but it still passed a GOP-controlled legislature and goes into effect April 1. Georgia had previously passed statewide E-Verify, despite opposition by farmers. Many undocumented workers have abandoned both those states, causing losses of crops, according to growers there.

Similar legislation failed in Florida this year but state farmers still fear that E-Verify may eventually be required here. And many fear that what they see as their only alternative, hiring foreigners through a federal guest worker visa program, would carry much higher costs and risks.

A front page article in this month's Florida Grower, published by the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, alerts farmers to the legislative dangers and urges them to contact their lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington.

''E-Verify could create massive disruptions in labor supply," the article says. The publication says there are 1.2 to 1.4 million farmworkers in the United States, with about 75 percent falsely documented. In Florida, there are an estimated 150,000 farmworkers with a similar rate of false documentation, although the rate among purely harvest workers is likely much higher, the article states.

In Georgia, just as in Alabama, it was largely Republican Party lawmakers who went against the interests of farmers, most of whom also traditionally support the GOP. Observers say that illustrates the anger in those states, and across the land, over the number of undocumented immigrants in the country.

''My biggest fear is people are so emotional on this issue and set in their opinion that we are going to have to have significant farm losses before legislators wake up," said Mike Carlton, labor relations director for the FFVA.

''We don't know the consequences of what's happening in Georgia and Alabama and how it will impact labor here in Florida this year. We know farmworkers were avoiding driving through Georgia last year and likely will avoid Alabama. It almost blocks us off."

According to the FFVA, a University of Georgia study of growers of blueberries, blackberries, Vidalia onions, bell peppers, squash, cucumber and watermelon showed that $140 million were lost "at the farm gate" this year due to labor shortages.

When related jobs are added in, such as retail sales and transportation of produce, the state economy lost an estimated $391 million, the FFVA said. "If approximately 75 percent of your work force disappears, what are you to do?" Florida Grower asked.

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