Economist sees old flaws in immigration bill

Residency for field workers proposed

By Jerry Kammer

October 12, 2003

WASHINGTON California economist Philip Martin, who has long studied the connection between federal immigration policy and California farmers' hunger for field hands, views a new legislative proposal in Congress with an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.

Martin, a professor at the University of California Davis and an internationally recognized immigration authority, said that if the bill becomes law, it probably will repeat some of the unintended consequences of 1986 legislation that gave amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants.

"This bill aims to produce a legal work force among people who are currently employed in agriculture," Martin said in an interview. "What it doesn't deal with is: What's going to prevent more illegal workers from coming?"

In his new book, "Promise Unfulfilled," Martin explains how the ready availability of Mexican farmhands who cross the border illegally has snarled efforts to organize workers so that they could fight for better wages and working conditions.

Martin writes that advocates of the 1986 amnesty law "believed that now-legalized workers, no longer fearful of the (federal immigration authorities), would have the confidence to push for higher wages."

However, as Martin notes, the bill's effort to control illegal immigration by making it illegal to knowingly hire unauthorized workers was a flop. And hundreds of thousands of migrants from Mexico and other countries fled desperation in their homeland every year, propelled to the United States by dreams of earning dollars.

Meanwhile, many of those who received amnesty including more than a million farmhands fanned out to seek opportunities across the United States. In many states that had hardly known Latino immigrants, they established communities that became magnets for relatives and friends who continue to make it past the Border Patrol at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per day.

"Perhaps the most important effect of (the 1986 act) was to spread unauthorized workers from the Southwest to the rest of the country," Martin writes.

The new bill before Congress includes some significant departures from the 1986 act, which provided amnesty for workers who had been in the country since 1982. It would require field hands to put in 360 hours of field work over a six-year period to earn permanent residence.

While the bill's sponsors have estimated that a half-million farmworkers could qualify for the legalization, Martin thinks the number is more likely to be between 600,000 and 900,000.

What if workers jump into what Martin calls the "revolving door" that brings workers into agriculture and then lets them out into jobs that offer better pay and working conditions?

The bill answers that question with a program to supply guest workers to cut lettuce and pick strawberries and other crops, which move across the country in refrigerated trucks on interstate freeways that Martin cites as another key to the prosperity and expansion of California fruit and vegetable farming.

However, Martin said that in the past, when growers have had a chance to hire guest workers, known as braceros, many have preferred the cheaper option of hiring those who continued to come into the country illegally.

One of the sponsors of the new bill, Rep. Howard Berman, D-North Hollywood, said he was optimistic that growers would stay within legal channels to avoid problems. He predicted that farmers will be willing to pay higher wages to keep a stabilized work force.

"My guess is that the growers do put some premium on experience, on workers they know," said Berman, who has been trying to improve conditions for farmworkers since he was a member of the state Assembly in the 1970s, when he helped write California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

Martin took the title of his book from what he sees as the failure of that bill's good intentions. He writes that the bill's vision of an energized and unionized work force was defeated not just by the constant influx of new field hands, but also by the emergence of farm labor contractors who supply work crews to the fields.

Martin said the contractors argue against Berman's hope for a stable work force. "They have high turnover and they go from farm to farm, so there's no way to argue that the farmer really cares about who is in the crew. They want to get the work done."

However, while Martin said the proposed legislation is likely to fail as a means of stabilizing farm labor or restraining illegal immigration, he acknowledged that it would accomplish another goal of advocates for farmworkers. One of those advocates, Bruce Goldstein of the Farmworker Justice Fund, called the legalization program "a question of justice."

"The people who do this work deserve immigration status," Goldstein said. "It's the fair thing to do. And we also need to know who is in this country. This bill helps us do that."