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Immigration policies worry farmers who depend on immigrant workers

A worker trims a tree at a farm in the Hood River Valley. (KATU Photo)

Vows of aggressive enforcement against undocumented workers and rumors of imminent crackdowns on those inside the country illegally are putting farmers and orchardists on edge.

Regionally, farmers are facing two major hurdles: a declining immigrant workforce and political uncertainty, stemming from the Trump administration's stance on illegal immigration.

Farmers say these stringent policies may decimate the very industry we rely on to produce food.

Hood River Valley orchardists Mike McCarthy says without a workforce willing to prune, thin and irrigate by hand, he may go out of business and grocery stores would look very different.

"If we lost the significant amount of this immigrant labor, some of it undocumented, we'd have a real crisis on our hands," McCarthy said. "If we didn't have immigrant labor, the shelves in the supermarkets would start to empty in about seven days. That's all it would take."

McCarthy manages 200 acres of land. Pears are his livelihood.

"We bought our first orchard in 1980, and been farming ever since," McCarthy told KATU as he walked through the pear trees. "These blooms are just starting to swell and that's where the fruit will be."

Hood River Valley is home to more than 250 farmers, at least a dozen of them own farms larger than 200 acres.

"Farming is a low margin industry, and if you don't have productive workers, you go out of business," McCarthy said. "It's not really about the wages, it's that Americans do not want to do farm work, and it makes it really tough to find enough people to get the work done."

Some farmers are taking precautions and looking into the H-2A visa program, which provides legal, temporary immigrant workers for harvest time.

"The really difficult thing about the guest worker program is that you really need to know about two years ahead of time how many people you're going to have at harvest time," McCarthy said. "When you have a crop that needs to be picked in 5 days, if they are 2 weeks late, you are really in a bad situation."

The visa program also requires farmers to build housing and navigate an extensive and demanding permitting process that could take years to complete. It also requires farmers to hire any domestic worker who applies for a job during that time.

McCarthy, farmers and agricultural groups from approximately 20 states are currently working with their local representatives to improve the H-2A visa program.

In a statement, Oregon Farm Bureau President Barry Bushue said:

“Farm families have struggled for years to get enough qualified employees to keep their operations going. Our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. Border security is important, but we also need a viable, legal way for employees to come to the United States to work and to return home. The increased enforcement and its effects on our communities are the symptoms. The problem is an unworkable immigration system."

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