WASHINGTON -- The agriculture industry fears a disaster is on the horizon if the one bit of new immigration policy that Congress seems to agree on becomes law.
A plan to require all American businesses to run their employees through E-Verify, a program that confirms each is legally entitled to work in the U.S., could wreak havoc on an industry where 80 percent of the field workers are illegal immigrants. So could the increased paperwork audits already under way by the Obama administration.
"We are headed toward a train wreck," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat whose district includes agriculture-rich areas. "The stepped up (workplace) enforcement has brought this to a head."
Lofgren said farmers are worried that their work force is about to disappear. They say they want to hire legal workers and U.S. citizens, but that it's nearly impossible, given the relatively low wages and back-breaking work.
Wages can range from minimum wage to more than $20 an hour. But workers often are paid by the piece; the faster they work, they more they make. A steady income lasts only as long as the planting and harvesting seasons, which can be measured in weeks.
"Few citizens express interest, in large part because this is hard, tough work," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said this past week. "Our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers to do the right thing."
Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, said migrant farm workers are exposed to blistering heat with little or no shade and few water breaks. It's skilled work, he said, requiring produce pickers to be exact and quick. While the best mushroom pickers can earn about $35,000 to $40,000 a year for piece work, there's little chance for a good living and American workers don't seem interested in farm jobs.
"It is extremely difficult, hard, dangerous work," Rodriguez said.
Last year Rodriguez's group started the "Take Our Jobs" campaign to entice American workers to take the fields. He said of about 86,000 inquiries the group got about the offer, only 11 workers took jobs.
"That really was thought up by farm workers trying to figure out what is it we needed to do to show that we are not trying to take away anyone's job," Rodriguez said.
Vilsak and the American Farm Bureau Federation president, Bob Stallman, said in a recent conference call with reporters that the best and likely only hope to stave off an economic catastrophe for American farmers and consumers is comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy. Vilsak said the industry is worth about $5 billion to $9 billion a year.
"We need to address the agriculture labor supply," Stallman said. "This situation will affect the future of America's farmers and ranchers."
Manuel Cunha, president of Nisei Farmers League, a group representing growers in central California, said farmers don't have the wherewithal to verify a worker's status when their labor force is often hired on the spot and in a hurry to pick ripe crops. Forcing them to verify a worker's legal status, he said, would prove disastrous.
"If we were to use E-Verify now, we'd shut down, either that or farmers would go to prison," said Cunha, a Fresno-based citrus farmer. "We've admitted many workers are not legal and if you have to get rid of everybody, where do I go to get my labor? Nowhere. We have to have a work force that we can put in the system."
Shawn Coburn, a politically active farmer who grows thousands of acres of almonds on the west side Fresno County, said he favors tighter borders, a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for those already in the U.S., or at the very least their children. But, like Cunha, he believes a mandatory E-Verify plan would be nothing but trouble for the industry.
"I don't think it's going to happen, but if it does it would throw the California economy for a loop," Coburn said.
Without a broad overhaul in the works, industry officials have focused on improving the H-2A temporary agricultural workers visa program that's aimed at allowing season workers to come and work on U.S. farms.
The program, however, is costly, time consuming and inefficient, according to Cathleen Enright, vice president of federal government affairs for the Western Growers Association.
"It has never been a great program or easy to work with," Enright said. "It's an unbelievably crushing program."
There isn't enough capacity in the system to process, interview and approve visa applications for the nearly 1 million seasonal workers who take to the fields every season. Farmers are required to pay for a worker's transportation from their home country to the fields, provide housing and other benefits.
Even minor violations of the numerous rules and regulations that govern the H-2A program can lead to hefty fines, Enright said.
"It's too expensive, it's too litigious, it's too bureaucratic," said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association. "We need a program that farmers can use and have confidence in."
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said farmers in his area want to do the right thing and hire legal workers but they are frustrated with the stifling bureaucracy that comes with the visa program.
"It's a labyrinthine visa process, with the slow walking of applications," Gowdy said. "You could not by accident come up with a better plan to ruin the small family farm."
Farmers, he said, "are just at their wits' end."
Using the program to get workers can put farmers at a disadvantage if their competitors decide to take their chances and hire illegal workers, Wicker said.
Lawmakers agree the visa program is problematic, but there's a wide divide on how to make it workable.
In 2009, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced legislation that would have given temporary resident status to immigrant farm workers and have created a path to legal residency for those workers after five years.
Neither bill, known as the AgJOBS Act, made it out committee. The idea is part of the discussion involving changes to the seasonal workers visa program, but Republicans have pledged to block it because it includes a path to legal status for immigrant workers.
Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican from an agriculture industry-heavy district near Sacramento, has said he sees that same "train wreck" Lofgren described, but that the AgJOBS bill isn't the answer.
"We're going to have a crisis in agriculture," Lungren said during a hearing this year on the visa program by the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement. "And while it sounds great to say an agreement (on AgJOBS) is going to take care of it, it's not going to pass."
About the only hope for success for any immigration-related legislation, Lungren and others say, is a bill that would make it mandatory for American employers to use the government's E-Verify program to ensure their workers are legal.
GOP Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has pledged to introduce such legislation. Such a proposal appeared to get a push this past week when the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in favor of an Arizona law that allows the state to penalize businesses for hiring illegal immigrant workers.
Agriculture officials say there needs to be some exception for farm workers.
"It needs to take into account the unique aspects of agriculture," Vilsak said.
Associated Press writers Gosia Wozniacka and Tracie Cone in Fresno, Calif., contributed to this report.