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New Arizona immigration law could aggravate labor shortages, say some sources

by Joan Murphy | April 28, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Produce businesses may be pushed to the front lines in a polarizing battle over a controversial Arizona immigration law.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer approved a new law April 23 that requires police to check the immigration status of individuals they "reasonably suspect" may be in the country illegally. Immigrants unable to produce documents showing they are allowed to be in the United States can be arrested, jailed and fined, and those found to be in the country illegally may be turned over to federal immigration officials.

Arizona passed the law because the federal government has failed to fix "the crisis caused by illegal immigration and Arizona's porous border," Gov. Brewer said in an April 23 press statement. The debate in the state legislature became emotional after an illegal alien was suspected of murdering a 58- year-old cattle rancher on the Arizona-Mexico border.

But the state law, which has yet to go into effect, is already having ripple effects outside the border state. Mexico has issued a travel advisory to caution Mexicans visiting Arizona, groups are threatening financial boycotts and the federal government may challenge the state law in federal court. With about 40 percent of Mexican-grown produce funneling through Arizona and the state a key player in growing U.S. produce, the new law may have some effects on businesses.

"It's too early to tell, and we don't know how far it will get," said Allison Moore, communications director for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, referring to the likelihood that the federal government could challenge the law "For our trucks crossing the border to warehouses, it's not an issue because the drivers go through [U.S. Customs & Border Protection] and must carry documents to verify their shipments," she said.

For produce businesses looking for a stable workforce, the new law may not be good news. "The law is likely to further polarize people on immigration reform and our agriculture community," said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. "It puts agricultural employers in gun sights" as they try to find reliable employees but must deal with more aggressive enforcement authorities, he added.

Mr. Gasperini said that he is already hearing stories of second- and third- generation Californians who would regularly work on Arizona farms afraid to travel to the state because of the new law. Arizona and California are still struggling financially, and this law could exacerbate Arizona's problems, he said.

"I believe the Arizona law goes too far and hopefully will be found unconstitutional," Tom Nassif, chief executive officer and president of the Western Growers Association, told The Produce News. "It can't but create racial profiling."

Produce workers who do not want to risk being incarcerated or lose work may think twice about working in Arizona, he said.

But there may be a silver lining. "Let's hope the actions of the Arizona Legislature and governor prompt Congress to realize states will go to extremes, which can be dangerous if the federal government doesn't act," Mr. Nassif said.

Mr. Gasperini is not as confident that the debate will translate into comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill.

"I think it's a long shot that comprehensive reform will go anywhere" right now, he said. Congress may end up debating only financial regulatory reform before sinking into the mid-term election season, he added.

While some debate whether Arizona's immigration law will fuel comprehensive immigration reform, Arizona businesses and government leaders have their own views about the new law. Arizona Rep. Russ Jones, who voted for the bill, said that the new law is getting a bad spin in the national media and stressed that the legislation directs police to undergo special training to avoid racial and ethnic profiling.

But Rep. Jones added that he did not agree with everything in the legislation and predicted that the courts will strike down a provision that requires people to carry documentation on their immigration status at all times.

Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer of Rio Rico, AZ-based Ciruli Bros. and chairman of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, agreed that the media are exploiting the new law. "There will be no change in the way we do business," he said. "When you live on the border, everyone gets stopped anyway," he said. The new law just extends this authority to police in the rest of the state, said Mr. Ciruli. He added that it will have an effect on the tourist industry, however, and the state will likely suffer from economic sanctions as a result of the new law.

The state's actions are not likely to have a direct effect on employers, but the new law may have a long-term effect on recruiting a labor force, said Joseph Sigg, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau. It also will cost more money to implement because police will be deputized to enforce immigration laws, he said.