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Local farmers sound alarm to congressman: We don’t have enough workers

April 1, 2017
In The News

Local farmers are worried. That much was clear from the conversation around the table at the L.I. Farm Bureau yesterday.

“The big elephant in the room is labor,” Jim Glover of Glover Perennials in Cutchogue told Rep. Lee Zeldin. “Labor is the biggest issue thwarting all of our efforts to do business in our industry,” he said.

“I don’t have enough help for my business.” Glover worries his business may not be sustainable and thoughts of expanding are out of the question.

The Cutchogue grower’s concerns were echoed by many of the men and women gathered at the farm bureau’s Calverton office for the group’s annual “breakfast with the congressman.” The breakfast has been a rite of spring for years — and for years farmers and growers who attend have voiced their concerns about the labor supply.

The agricultural industry has historically relied on an immigrant workforce, L.I. Farm Bureau president Karl Novak told Zeldin.

“We need to find a way to ensure that we have safe borders, and we also have to have access to a reliable work force,” Novak said.

The existing visa program for agricultural workers is not adequate. The number of visas available are insufficient and farmers have to deal with a ridiculous amount of red tape, they say. The bureaucracy at the Department of Labor has been unreliable in getting workers to the North Fork farms on time, when they are needed. Local farmers have been complaining for years of their frustration with the program and have sought to have it moved to the Department of Agriculture in the hope that their plight would be better understood and their needs better addressed.

For more than a decade a large swath of the farm worker labor pool has been undocumented — a number that’s been estimated as high as 75 percent nationally. No local estimates are available, according to farm bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter.

“Most farmers do the best they can to make sure all their workers have all their documents,” Carpenter said in a recent interview.

“I can tell you this,” Glover told Zeldin yesterday, “mandatory e-verify would devastate many a business in this industry — just devastate.” Glover referred to the federal internet-based employment verification system intended to root out illegal immigrants who are ineligible to work in the U.S. It is now voluntary except in states that have made it mandatory. New York is not one of them. But legislation is currently pending in Congress to make it mandatory nationwide.

Worries in the local agricultural industry have ramped up even more this year, as President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to deport the estimated 11 million people living in the United States without legal documentation. The new administration has not moved forward on any mass deportation plans but has stepped up enforcement measures it says are targeting criminals who have standing deportation orders.

Immigrant advocacy groups report widespread fear in the Latino immigrant community, which has been the leading source of farm labor on the East End for many years. One local grower said her employees come to work “terrified.”

It’s nearly impossible to fill most jobs on the farms and in greenhouses with non-immigrants, farmers say. Complicating things is New York’s rising minimum wage. As the minimum wage increases, minimum-wage workers will look for jobs in non-agricultural sectors, they say.

“Farm labor is a very difficult job,” Carpenter said.

In addition, the seasonality of the work makes it tough to fill will local people.

“How can I ask a local American worker to come in and work for me on March 1 and leave July 1?” asked Bianca Sullivan, owner of ColorfulGardens Wholesale in Calverton and president of the Flower Growers Association of Long island.

Sullivan, Glover and others yesterday pressed Zeldin on immigration reform measures, asking if he’d support a comprehensive reform measure or at least a revamped, workable guest worker visa program.

“I would love to be part of getting something across the finish line to deal with everyone who is here illegally,” Zeldin said. “I’ve never been one of those people that says ‘deport them all.’”

Zeldin said there are not enough votes in either the House or Senate to pass a comprehensive reform bill. The solution, as he sees it, is to first address “border security and interior enforcement.” Once legislators believe those two things have been adequately addressed, Congress can then turn to other aspects of the thorny and highly charged issue — one area at a time.

The congressman said he does not support building a wall across the entire southern border, as President Trump has advocated.

“A lot of people who are here illegally came here legally on an airplane,” Zeldin said, “but a lot of the talk is about the southern border. I don’t believe we should have a 30-foot high beautiful wall covering every inch of our southern border.”

Once the federal government tackles border security and interior enforcement, Congress will be able to find common ground on at least some of the issues and pursue reform piecemeal, Zeldin said. “They’ve gotten close in the past trying to solve everything with one bill and they couldn’t do it. They wouldn’t get there now,” he said.

“I wish there wasn’t so much—” Zeldin broke off, struggling to find the right word. “I wish there wasn’t so much partisan emotion, partisan assumptions,” he said. “This is one of those issues where there are really strong passions across the political spectrum. People have very principled positions on how they want to tackle this,” he said.

“But I don’t believe in rounding up the 11 million people here illegally, telling them they have to leave and deporting them,” Zeldin said.

He said he would advocate making changes to “various aspects of the system, reducing the number by 300,000 here or 70,000 there. The American people would be happy to see the needle move in the right direction.”

Zeldin told the group he supports improving the guest worker visa program as well as providing a way for “people who went through our education system, people who we’ve invested a whole lot of money in,” he said, alluding to a group of people that mirrors the “dreamers” President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2012 to protect from deportation, after Congress failed to pass legislation that would have had that effect. Trump has not rescinded that executive order, though he once criticized it as “illegal.” Since taking office, he has said this group of undocumented residents, who were brought to the U.S. as children is “a very, very difficult subject.” It remains unclear what the new administration’s policy will be.

“They love our country and they want to stay here. They want to be productive members of our society,” Zeldin said. “I’m supportive of we should find a way to allow them to stay here.”

“But what about their uncle who works on the tree farm?” asked Sullivan. “What are we going to do for him? He’s been there for 20 years.”

Zeldin said he supports “figuring out a way to allow the employer to hire him.”

Sullivan said a better visa program would be a good start.

“We’re not talking about a path to citizenship,” Sullivan said. “Many of these people want to come out of the shadows. They want to pay their taxes, have drivers licenses and car insurance. They want to be able to go home and visit their families — and come back to work.” That would be a great help to local agriculture, she said.

In an interview after the meeting, Zeldin said he can’t support reform that creates a blanket path to citizenship for people who are here illegally.

“What about the people who aren’t here yet because they went through the process legally,” he asked. “I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those people,” he said.

“Every nation’s backbone is the rule of law,” Zeldin said.

As border security and interior enforcement are improved, Zeldin said, there will be sufficient support in Congress to “improve different aspects of our visa system” as well as deal with the childhood arrivals, the so-called dreamers.

For now, local farmers — and their workers — will continue to worry and wait.