Washington agriculture understands the value of immigrant workers
Immigration and labor laws have been ignored, manipulated or influenced so agriculture and other industries have access to a cheap, but highly productive, workforce, writes Ricardo Sanchez. These immigrant workers have a pathway to citizenship.
Special to The Times
I AM among those who applaud President Obama's recent directive to enable certain undocumented youth to live and work here without fear of deportation. I also believe that we are a nation of laws, and that they should be uniformly enforced.
For decades, immigration and labor laws have been ignored, manipulated or influenced — by U.S. citizens so that agriculture and other industries have access to a cheap, but highly productive, workforce.
Washington's impressive and productive agricultural industry is a good place to look to understand why immigrant workers are so valuable.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Washington State's Latino population increased by 352 percent between 1990 and 2010 to 780,047. During this period, the value of Washington's agricultural products paralleled the population growth, with no crop more lucrative than apples.
In 1986, Washington produced 45 percent of the nation's apples, valued at $488 million. By 2010, we produced 60 percent, and the value ballooned to $1.4 billion.
In 2010, Washington was the nation's top producer of red raspberries, hops, apples, concord grapes, sweet cherries, pears and carrots — all labor-intensive, all heavily dependent on undocumented workers.
The News Tribune reported in 2011, "Roughly 66,000 of the 92,000 workers — nearly 72 percent — who are needed for seasonal harvests are 'document challenged,' according to the state's farm groups."
Lose 70 percent of the agricultural workforce and watch nearly $1.4 billion from apples alone disappear from our economy.
That's not something U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, who has represented Eastern Washington's farm belt in Congress since 1995, cares to see happen.
In 1997, Hastings was summoned by cherry farmers to intervene when immigration authorities had the gall to conduct raids during the harvest season. Hastings joined farmers in complaining about overzealous tactics and too much Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) activity.
The raids ended. Lesson learned.
When was the last time you heard of immigration raids conducted during Washington's apple harvest?
You haven't and you won't. It's a consistent practice across the country — hands off during harvest seasons — not in Washington's apple, hops or cherry fields; not in California's strawberry or avocado fields; not in Georgia's onion fields.
In October 2011, Gov. Chris Gregoire earned national news when she led an agricultural delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform. This included lobbying against E-Verify, a proposal in Congress that would require all employers to verify Social Security numbers of its workers.
Gregoire asked, "Now why — in this recession, as hard-hit as we are — would we, the state of Washington, support that?" Like Rep. Hastings and fruit-tree farmers, the governor knows.
To repeat, U.S. citizens have ignored, manipulated or influenced immigration and labor laws so that agriculture and other industries have access to a cheap, but highly productive, workforce.
President Obama is right and just in providing administrative relief for children of the workers, even if temporary. Fair-minded people will agree that the last people who should be harmed by the deals that adults cut are innocent young people, especially those we have educated and who are instilled with American values.
Congress should follow the president's lead by providing a pathway to citizenship for such students by approving the DREAM Act. Then, Congress should find the courage to enact comprehensive immigration reform that is sensible and fair to employers as well as workers who have contributed greatly to our economy.
In Washington, the governor and state Legislature could demonstrate their understanding and compassion by enabling undocumented students to qualify for need-based financial aid for college.
With college degrees, students will repay the substantial educational investment we have made in them. They will work hard and contribute enormously to our economy, just like their parents.Ricardo Sanchez is director of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, a program of Sea Mar Community Health Centers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org