Farmers grapple with immigration rules |

Farmers grapple with immigration rules

Robert Allen
Hired Mexican workers tend to Olathe, Colo. farmer Mike Ahlberg's onion crop.. (AP Photo/Montrose Daily Press, William Woody)

OLATHE – On a hot afternoon, the sun beams life into countless rows of onions as 12 men and women work their way through the crops with hoes, picking weeds.They’ve traveled hundreds of miles, forging through several barriers for the opportunity to perform rigorous manual labor in the United States.Jorge Delacruz Hernandez, 30, came to Delta from Nayarit, Mexico, to work for Mountain Fresh Sweet Corn. It’s his eighth year on the visa program, and he grins when asked how he likes the work. In Spanish, he says the company treats him well, that he feels safe at work, knowing there is a hospital available in case of emergency.”Quite a few make money and send it home,” Mike Ahlberg, owner of Mountain Fresh, said. “But they get homesick just like you or I do. They work through the sweet corn season then say ‘I wanna go home.”‘Ahlberg said his 92 workers came to the United States on the H-2B visa. The program allows them to work for an initial stay of one year and does not require the farm to provide housing.Ahlberg has used this visa program the past five years. Although the visas don’t expire until Dec. 31, he said about half of his laborers will leave sooner.’Zero applications’Illegal immigration has become a heated issue in U.S. politics, transcending the lines between dominant political parties. One sect of Colorado’s Republicans argues that recent moves to require prospective employees to provide additional identification would force a sharp blow to the state’s economy. Another side argues that businesses are responsible for ensuring that their employees are legit and should be held accountable for breaking the law.

Meanwhile, farmers struggle against increasing supply costs and mountains of paperwork.Importing labor legally is costly and tedious. A farmer must request the number of workers he will need no more than 120 days in advance and no less than 60. In addition, government regulation requires that he look within his community before resorting to outside help.”We have to advertise in the paper for workers to see if there’s any available in the U.S.,” Ahlberg said. “This year we got zero applications. The year before, we got one.”He needs laborers to pick and pack crops such as sweet corn, watermelons, onions and squash. This year, Ahlberg employed 92 laborers through Francisco Saenz, a contractor. Saenz could not be reached for comment.”There is only one legal labor contractor in Western Colorado,” Ahlberg said. “And then there are other people who supply labor to other farmers, but they don’t have a license to do it.”Ahlberg’s method for hiring farm hands is legal. Unfortunately, the complex structure of the system makes the visa program less workable for those with smaller farms.”The program needs some tweaking for the smaller growers,” Bill Frye, Mountain Fresh spokesman said. “Unfortunately, when Congress writes bills, the lobbyists are really the ones that write the bills.”He said they are tailored for the large-scale companies, such as those in California’s Central Valley, which back the lobbyists. At Mountain Fresh, the workers come in on H-2B visas, but about 30 percent of the work they do is in the fields, falling under the H-2A category.The H-2A is fitted for large-scale farms, which are able to offer between six and eight months of consistent employment. These visas are deemed for agriculture, but are insufficient for farms such as Ahlberg’s because he can only offer about two months of employment, Frye said. Therefore, the farm must hire attorneys to ensure it doesn’t violate the law.

“Somewhere along the line here, the government is going to have to come up with more clear-cut, workable definitions on programs or you’re going to lose your agricultural community over here,” Frye said.There is a membership fee to get into the program. Ahlberg said it “costs you $5,000 whether you bring in 92 or two.” He must also pay the contractor, and he says the paperwork is nearly a job in itself.Resorting to illegal workersKerry Mattics, owner of Mattics Orchards in Olathe, needs only about 18 to 20 laborers at peak time. Last year, he advertised through newspaper and radio, but received no calls. The alternative was to find labor through word of mouth.”If I hire somebody I’m not too sure about, then they can fine me,” Mattics said. “But if it’s a choice between that and not having any labor, you have to take your chances.”He tried hiring high school students once, but that was “kind of a disaster.” Mattics said he doesn’t usually need help until around mid-July and by then, most students have already found summer jobs. He said the most crucial time he needs labor is between August and mid-October, once school is back in session.”We do the best we can with what we have to work with,” Mattics said. “Last year, we left more (produce) in the field than ever, due to a lack of time and help.”

Both Mattics and Ahlberg said the rates they get for their crops fail to keep up with inflation. The prices of equipment, fuel, fertilizer and even boxes continue to rise.”Box costs are up 32 cents ($1.24 to $1.56),” said Ahlberg. “That comes right out of this pocket. My pocket. You’ve gotta pass that cost on. It comes right off the top of the deal before you ever get your returns back on your corn.”Mattics said he may have to shrink the size of his farm due to a shortage of labor. He has even struggled to find people to work at stands where the produce is sold.A bipartisan movement has been working to pass legislation that would bar non-emergency, state services to illegal immigrants. The group petitioned to have the voters decide directly by placing the initiative on the ballot this fall, but the move was halted by the Supreme Court on a technicality. The state legislature on Monday adjourned its five-day special session after approving a package of bills which would force a million people receiving state or federal aid in Colorado to verify their citizenship.Farmers are concerned the plan will further burden the struggling farm industry. Myriad business owners from ski resorts to oil companies fear the move will cripple the economy.”Somewhere in there, something’s gotta give,” said Mattics. “Basically, I’m willing to pay whatever it takes to feed my kids and have a roof over our heads, but in some cases, it looks like that might not even be workable.”Vail, Colorado

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