Shorthanded

Foreign pickers aren't getting through the post-9/11 barricades to harvest U.S. crops

Total acreage for fresh-market vegetables in Texas has decreased by 75 percent in the last 30 years, Dainello says. In the decade since NAFTA, it has dropped from 160,000 acres to fewer than 70,000, according to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Even in the Houston area, rice and vegetable farming was prevalent as little as 20 years ago. "It was all ranch land and rice land from Jersey Village west to the Cypress area all the way out to Katy," says William Kalbow, vice-president of the Harris County Farm Bureau Board and the operator of a small produce stand north of the city.

Texas continues to lead the country in some agricultural production, such as cotton, hay, wheat and sorghum. These crops -- as well as fresh-market produce such as carrots, green beans and spinach -- are not affected by labor shortages since they are mechanically harvested. But the technology does not yet exist for performing other tasks, such as picking off soft fruit or clipping onion roots, which must be done by hand.

William Kalbow, who runs a produce stand in Cypress, remembers when farmland dominated the areas surrounding Houston.
Daniel Kramer
William Kalbow, who runs a produce stand in Cypress, remembers when farmland dominated the areas surrounding Houston.
Republican loyalist John McClung became fed up with his party for increasing border enforcement without calling for a guest-worker program to bail out farmers.
Todd Spivak
Republican loyalist John McClung became fed up with his party for increasing border enforcement without calling for a guest-worker program to bail out farmers.

Thiel, who produces three million pounds of fresh-market squash a year -- much of which is sold to H-E-B and Wal-Mart -- says the labor shortage especially hurts farmers whose crops must be picked almost immediately after maturing.

Onions, he says, have about a ten-day window for harvesting, while cantaloupes should be picked within 24 hours after ripening.

When Thiel's green and yellow zucchinis reach the desirable size, about six to eight inches, he has 48 hours to get them out of the ground. Otherwise, nobody wants them because they've grown too large. "On the third day it's a loser," he says.

Last summer, after his radio ads failed to bring in workers, Thiel spent a week hauling out five-pound, foot-long zucchinis. His losses totaled about $75,000.

"It's very emotional," he says. "You have a certain amount of time to get it done and if you don't get it done, that's it, it's over."


A lifelong Republican, John McClung served as spokesman for the USDA under Ronald Reagan, and a photo of him posing with the late president hangs prominently in his office. These days, however, his loyalties are wavering.

"I'm so unhappy with the House Republican leadership," says McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, "I'm about ready to divorce the whole party."

McClung and other agricultural industry leaders say they felt betrayed by the Republican-led House for not passing a guest-worker program this year.

The Senate proposed a plan to reform the existing H-2A guest-worker program, which critics say is too complex and has burdensome requirements. For instance, farmers must provide workers free housing, meals and transportation. Nationwide less than three percent of agricultural workers use the visas.

The new guest-worker plan, known as AgJOBS, would let undocumented workers become legal permanent residents if they remain employed in agriculture for another three years. That would give farmers a stable work force while they transition from undocumented labor.

But with mid-term elections approaching, House leaders bowed to conservatives who think such programs steal jobs from Americans and create an underclass of foreign workers.

"Some think it's swell that brown-skinned people come to our country and work for half the wages," Keeley says. "It's a repugnant economic model, a bastardization of our immigration heritage."

The bracero program, prompted by labor shortages during World War II, was the last major guest-worker program between the American and Mexican governments. More than four million Mexicans crossed the border from 1942 to 1964, mostly to work in agriculture. Widespread reports of exploitation hardly discouraged the influx of workers, who often did not receive the housing, meals and wages they were promised.

Antonio Garcia, who was 16 when he crossed into Texas as a bracero, said his supervisors treated workers "like slaves," according to a 2003 interview he gave to the University of Texas at El Paso as part of an oral-history project. "They didn't want us to kneel or to put our hands on our knees, they would use abusive language when they addressed us and they would threaten to send us back to Mexico," Garcia recalled.

To prevent such abuses today, guest workers should have portable visas letting them transfer to different farms if problems arise, according to Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and leading advocate of immigration reform.

The next major immigration initiative occurred under Reagan, who granted amnesty to 2.6 million illegal residents. But the Immigration Reform and Control Act failed to prevent new arrivals. The estimated number of illegal immigrants in the United States has nearly tripled to 12 million since 1986, and roughly 40 percent arrived just within the last five years, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The majority of today's illegal immigrants neither swam across the river nor trekked through the desert. Rather, they simply overstayed their visas, causing many to question the usefulness of the multibillion-dollar border wall initiative President George W. Bush recently signed into law.

Similar efforts in the '90s to close off the borders using high-tech surveillance ran into major technical and contracting debacles. A test of ground sensors showed they couldn't distinguish between animals and people, and cameras were paid for but never installed.

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