Wednesday, September 05, 2007
IMMIGRATION RULE TARGETS FARMWORKERS. KNOW YOU PICK YOU OWN CROPS AT TEMPERATURES RISEN 100'S DEGREES.
SOCIAL SECURITY CARD CRACKDOWN WORRIES AREA CROP OWNERS.
HALF MOON BAY - Farmer John Giusti will be watching the mail with apprehension this fall.
He's waiting for letters from the government telling him that some of his workers have been using fraudulent Social Security numbers to earn wages on his farm.
If the workers can't fix the problem, he's going to have to fire them.
Coastside row crop farmers, flower nursery owners and other agriculture industry employers face losing some of their workers under a new national immigration enforcement policy that forces all employers to take action against employees who receive "no-match" letters from the Social Security Administration - meaning the Social Security number they've used to register for work does not match existing records.
In some cases, a clerical error could be the culprit. But in other cases, a mismatch could mean the worker is illegal. If they are, farmers like Giusti will be faced with a tough choice: Fire workers he badly needs at the height of the harvest season, some of whom have been working for him for decades, or face steep fines and possible criminal prosecution for continuing to employ them.
"I'm worried about getting a lot of those no-match letters and potentially not having enough labor to harvest my crops," said Giusti. "It could be a disaster for me."
The controversial new policy, which takes effect Sept. 14, lays out clear guidelines and penalties for employers who receive the notices, which are enforced by U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After receiving a mismatch letter, an employer has 90 days to verify that the number in his employee records is correct, account for the discrepancy and send in a corrected form with a new Social Security number for the employee. If he continues to employ a known illegal worker, the employer is subject to hefty fines and felony prosecution with a potential 10-year prison sentence.
The new rules, which affect nearly every industry, are already under legal challenge by the AFL-CIO. Its lawyers argue that employers will react to their new legal burden by firing some workers without cause and discriminating against others.
Pescadero farmer Joe Muzzi fears a portion of his field workers won't stick around long enough to potentially be fired. He already lost 10 percent of his workforce this year due to increased border security. And finding replacements has proven next to impossible.
"I'm not going to tell you any secrets - a lot of the farmers out here do hire illegal workers," said Muzzi. "I'm sure everybody's in the same shoes. If we start getting personal with (the workers) and try to find out how legal they are, I'm sure they're going to head down the road."
Immigration officials are unsympathetic.
"The laws regarding the hiring of unauthorized workers have been on the books for two decades," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the federal agency. "What is new is that we are expanding our efforts to prosecute employers knowingly violating the law."
The new rules challenge the "don't ask, don't tell" policy many employers use when they hire workers, but don't make it easier to screen for bogus documents like a fake Social Security card or picture ID, which employees must present when applying for a job.
"As far as I'm concerned, they've shown documentation and they're legal to work," said Giusti. "I wouldn't know whether what they're showing me is fraudulent."
Local farmers are worried enough that the San Mateo County Farm Bureau arranged a question-and-answer session with an immigration attorney last week. Pescadero-area farmers have been calling the offices of Puente de la Costa Sur, a migrant worker resource center, wondering how the new policy might affect them. Local farmworkers are nervous too, said Kerry Lobel, the group's executive director.
Pescadero's economy largely depends on its farm labor; and the sons and daughters of farmworkers fill the local schools.
"You have the added complication of living in an area where we have lots of jobs in our community that only some people are willing to do," said Lobel. "We know there's a high number of people without documents and it's going to add complications. It's such a Washington solution that doesn't address how the real world works and how our local economy sustains itself."
Muzzi echoed her concerns.
"Some of the people who have been with me for 15 years - their kids are in school, they pay their taxes and they could be gone tomorrow."
If that happens, Muzzi plans to replace many of his workers with expensive harvesting machines from Europe.
Giusti would be willing to sponsor some of his best workers through a work visa, if necessary. He agrees the worker registration system is "broken," but thinks American workers could be accounted for with a solution that promotes stability, such as a guest worker program.
"This new rules have created a big problem - this fluctuating work force, that's going to be a disaster," he said.