Texas growers eye immigration laws

Labor-strapped growers eye reform

Dimmit County onion grower Bruce Frasier spends the pre-dawn hours drawing up spreadsheets balancing the day’s inventories of young plants with orders from big-box retailers, commercial farms and direct-mail buyers across the country. The variable is always labor.

“I never know how many will show up,’’ he said, surveying the long lines of sprouts ready for transplant Friday. Not surprisingly, Frasier is an outspoken proponent of a new agricultural guest worker program, said to be one of the key pieces, if not sticking points, of comprehensive immigration reform being hammered out behind closed doors in Congress.

He says his own operation is proof that there are farmworkers who want to come to the United States, work and go back home . Despite his workforce concerns, Frasier considers himself one of the lucky ones. Since he lives only an hour from the border, he can count on vans bringing workers from near a bridge linking Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Mexico . The most adept at pulling, banding and cutting the plants will make about $80 per day and be returning by midday to homes in Mexico. He says he checks to see whether they can work legally in the U.S. But there’s no certainty about how many will show up , and there’s a shortage of workers on the U.S. side.

The oil and gas drilling boom in the Eagle Ford Shale, credited with creating more than 116,000 jobs in a 20-county area in 2012, is exacerbating the labor problems. Field hands are leaving to take higher-paying jobs with energy companies, making it harder than ever for farmers in the area to find workers at harvest time.

Frasier’s American workers — who can earn as much as $20 an hour — are aging, and their children aren’t interested in farm work. “In the end, my crop won’t wait,’’ he wrote in a recent newspaper opinion piece. “If I can’t find enough willing and able U.S. workers, I need a fast, legal, reliable way to hire foreign farmhands.’’

Frasier said he would bring on workers who aren’t citizens or green-card holders, but that would mean tapping the H-2A visa program, a temporary work program that allows farmers to bring in foreign labor. To use it, farmers need to petition the State Department and show that there aren’t enough U.S. or legal immigrant workers to get the job done and that U.S. workers’ wages won’t be hurt.

In Frasier’s opinion, the program is cumbersome and counterproductive. “We can’t do H-2A because in H-2A you’re supposed to offer the American workers first,’’ he said. “That means my H-2A workers would be sitting there waiting to see how many of these people showed up, and then I could put them to work. And if they didn’t go to work, I would have to pay them anyway.’’

The program also ties workers to specific employers, rather than letting workers follow the crops. In practice, the program has been limited to large growers with staff lawyers or outside agents to handle the paperwork. Meanwhile, the use of undocumented labor continues. About 48 percent of farm laborers don’t have legal status to work in the U.S., according to a National Agricultural Workers Survey, and just 33 percent are U.S. citizens.

Others say the percentage of undocumented farmworkers is higher. The United Farm Workers estimates 1 million of the nation’s 1.6 million farmworkers are undocumented, which is 63 percent. With such numbers, sources close to negotiations in Congress say bipartisan “gang of eight’’ groups in both chambers know they can’t ignore agriculture.

Insiders say long-awaited proposals for comprehensive immigration reform are imminent, with published reports expecting a Senate proposal within a few weeks.