view current print edition




Industry feels labor pinch as support grows in Florida for immigration legislation

by Chip Carter | July 15, 2010
Though Florida agriculture industry leaders claim such a move could have far-reaching unintended consequences, popular support is growing in Florida for immigration legislation similar to Arizona's new SB 1070 law.

Polls show support running as high as 60 percent among Floridians for a similar law. Two front-running Republican gubernatorial candidates have promised support for such legislation, and state Sen. Mike Bennett (R- Bradenton) announced the last week of June that he is in the process of drafting a bill based on the Arizona law. A similar effort, spearheaded by State Rep. William Snyder (R-Stuart) is underway in the state House of Representatives. State Sen. Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland) and State Rep. Kevin Ambler (R-Tampa) hope to force action even sooner: Both hope to introduce immigration bills during a special session of the Florida Legislature called for the week of July 20 specifically to address the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis.

Leaders of Florida's agriculture industry -- already beset by labor woes -- fear the unintended consequences of such legislation would leave the state with too few hands to harvest and process produce. Farm labor issues are increasingly vexing for a state relying more and more heavily on agriculture for economic support since its top two industries - tourism and construction - are reeling from a one-two punch of recession and environmental disaster. As State Sen. J.D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales), himself a citrus grower, recently told members of that industry at the annual Florida Citrus Conference, "We've been having a hard time getting verified Americans to work for us."

The H-2A visa law, designed to allow U.S. companies to import labor to solve short-term crises, has been a flop in Florida. In order to employ H-2A workers, companies have to advertise for local help first. Without a crystal ball, growers say that the 45-day advance notice period to employ H-2A laborers is too long - and that there is simply too much red tape involved to make the process worthwhile.

"The farmers are advertising, and they're not getting the workforce. I know Americans are hard workers, but this is not an industry that people gravitate to. It's backbreaking work," said Liz Compton, public information director for the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. "They talk about taking jobs away from Americans - [American] people won't take those jobs."

Even with rampant unemployment and a stagnant economy, Florida growers and shippers are having a tough time finding enough help. Much of the workforce comes from the state's Hispanic population, and additional pressure on that community will undoubtedly make an already difficult situation worse.

One would have to be deaf and blind to visit a Florida farm or packinghouse and not notice a preponderance of Hispanic workers. Many of those are legal; some likely are not. Though no one in the industry would discuss the issue of undocumented workers directly, it is not uncommon for reporters and photographers visiting Florida farms to notice some workers scattering when cameras and notepads appear.

Federal statistics show that the illegal immigrant population in Florida is in decline, and has been for several years. According to a study released last year by the Department of Homeland Security, from 2000 to 2009, the number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona rose from 330,000 to 460,000, while Florida's illegal alien population declined from 800,000 to 720,000 during the same period.

Regardless of the impact a bill like Arizona's would have on Florida's undocumented labor force, state agriculture industry leaders are concerned about the impact such a law would have on the supply of legal Hispanic workers.

There are indications that Hispanics are leaving Arizona in the wake of SB 1070. Some Hispanic workers who live in California but work seasonally in Arizona have opted to forego work in the latter state. The Mexican government has issued travel advisories to its citizens visiting Arizona for any reason.

If a bill similar to Arizona's became law in Florida, "We would have concerns about being able to pick the crop," said Andrew Meadows, spokesperson for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus grower organization. "Labor would most likely leave the state to avoid the law. Labor would cost more, driving up the cost of citrus products. This is why we need comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level."

That is not likely coming any time soon. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) recently told Florida media, "If you are asking me if we will pass an immigration bill this year, the answer is no."

In the meantime, Florida faces the prospect of a declining workforce.

"A lot of them are going home or just not trying to make it across the border," Ms. Compton said. "If you add additional pressure -- even if there's a perception of some big crackdown on immigration -- we do believe there would be a reduction in a workforce in an industry that's very reliant on it. We need to find a way to identify workers and give them the ability to do this job and go home when it's non-season." Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson "does not believe in amnesty, but he would like to get people to the point where they can be here to do the job legally. We need people to work. Americans are not filling these jobs. We need a better answer. This is a workforce that is necessary to [sustain] agriculture."