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Several at forefront of immigration reform share 'war stories' at PMA session

SAN DIEGO -- Farming by its very nature is not for the risk-averse. Perhaps nowhere is this more exemplified than by the largely Latino workforce that takes a considerable risk just getting to and from work.

Voluminous evidence demonstrates that these workers -- who often work in the fields -- are not taking jobs away from anyone else, said Craig Regelbrugge, senior director of government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association.

A PMA Fresh Summit workshop on immigration reform shed light on both the difficulties for illegal immigrants working the fields as well as workers here legally who face various forms of harassment. The spotlight shone on several brave industry professionals who have stood up to what they believe are unfair legal machinations surrounding immigration issues.

Mr. Regelbrugge was joined on the panel by Luawanna Hallstrom, chief operating officer of Oceanside, CA-based Harry Singh & Sons; Maureen Torrey-Marshall of Torrey Farms Inc. in Elba, NY; Stephanie Vance of Advocacy Associates in Washington, DC; and Anthony Barbieri, director of produce for Acme Markets Inc. Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association served as moderator.

PMA billed the workshop as the "most economically critical issue facing the fresh produce industry today," and that assessment appears to be an accurate one.

Mr. Regelbrugge said that the longstanding battle is not getting any easier for advocates such as him or others on the panel. He referred to the 50- something-year-old legal channel of H-2A as "broken" and only providing 2 percent of the workforce nationwide.

There is a shortage of legally documented workers, and adding to that already difficult environment is aggressive enforcement in some areas, RICO lawsuits against employers who employ illegal immigrants and a Social Security "no match" rule for identifying workers who are not on the tax rolls -- a step that may be taken over by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. Hallstrom said that like other growers, her operation has unusual needs. "If we don't get the labor to help us grow our crops, we can't do business," she said. Her company faced a dire predicament following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Harry Singh & Sons operates on federal land. Following the terrorist attacks, the federal government's first order of business was to secure all federal land. Her company was caught in a bind with its workforce.

"We lost 75 percent of our workforce during peak [tomato] harvest season," Ms. Hallstrom said, adding that the company lost more than $2.5 million worth of product it could not harvest.

California is working at 40 percent capacity on average of its labor force, Ms. Hallstrom said.

Ms. Torrey-Marshall said that the reality is that as a nation, the United States imports either labor or food. She said that her workers are being picked up by authorities when they come out of grocery stores and churches. "Our employees aren't numbers," Ms. Torrey-Marshall said. "They're people you work side by side with every day."

Mr. Regelbrugge said that Ms. Torrey-Marshall "not only talks the talk, she walks the walk" in her outspoken advocacy efforts.

Ms. Vance encouraged political involvement and efforts to educate legislators on these issues. "Learn what issues they care about and what they're involved in," Ms. Vance said.

Ms. Vance, who has worked on Capitol Hill, also encouraged persistence. "It takes on average seven years to get legislation through," she said.