Immigration Reform Or Not, Immigrants and Employers Still Struggle in the Agricultural Industry

Law Firm Newswire



Miami, FL (Law Firm Newswire) December 15, 2014 – In relation to immigration reform, it is not just immigrants struggling to find seasonal agricultural jobs in the United States who are cause for concern. Employers also desperately need workers to plant, maintain and harvest their fields and feed the nation.

With immigration reform still a questionable hope for the future, based on the path of the president’s executive action, the agricultural industry is facing further uncertainty. Without enough workers, food supplies do not get to market,” said Larry Rifkin, a Miami immigration lawyer and managing partner at Rifkin & Fox-Isicoff, P.A.

Consider the generational story of the Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington, Washington. Sakuma Brothers has been a family-owned and -operated fruit farm for five generations. Soon, they will enter their sixth generation as the farm is transferred to the current owner’s son.

Farms across the nation are targeted by lawsuits over wages, strikes and boycotts, largely over illegal immigrant worker housing and wages. Immigrant workers want unions to protect them and get them better wages. Each layer of demands from workers puts the employer into a difficult financial quandary.

How does an employer pay higher wages when there are not enough workers to do the job? Crop planning is reduced each year because of the worker shortage. When the government imposes regulations on top of regulations, they increase the cost of hiring workers each year.

No one denies all workers have rights – the right to have work and the right to a fair wage. What seems to be missing is a grasp of the issues surrounding immigration law and of the ways the broken system affects not just every worker on the land, but their potential employers.

“While activism has its place in society, it would work far better if the activists took a hard look at the whole picture and not just part of it,” added Rifkin. “For every immigrant on the field, there is a mile-high stack of expensive documentation attached. There are even more rules to follow without citizenship validation.”

Sakuma Farms’ owner, Steve Sakuma, has done a lot of work to ensure that his laborers, most of whom are undocumented, have decent wages and are treated fairly. Sakuma knows about the American Dream. He and his family achieved it through citizenship. He also understands that the real problem with immigration these days is the lack of reform, a fact that denies all undocumented workers citizenship and a chance for that dream.
On the other side of the labor relationship, farming unions are demanding contracts. However, according to federal law, specifically to the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, employment standards are already laid out. They deal with transportation, wages and housing. Sakuma faced a class-action lawsuit that alleged 1,200 of his workers were shorted wages between 2010 and 2013. He settled for a payout of $850,000. What does it leave to run the farm without reducing the number of workers to cover for the losses?

And what did settling with a union do to staff the fields when picking time came? Four hundred thousand pounds of strawberries were left to die because instead of the 350 pickers needed to handle the crop, only 250 were working. Less was sold. Less made it to the market. Prices went up. “And this does not just happen to berry farmers. This is a real threat to any farm in the United States,” said Rifkin.

Tougher border controls and higher deportation rates are decimating the agricultural workforce in an industry in which Americans do not want to work. Immigration reform would address the problem and needs to move forward.