Texas rural leaders support migrant worker program to aid farms

By Lisa Falkenberg, AP, San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday 31 January 2001

(01-31) 00:56 EST AUSTIN, Texas (AP)—Picking onions in the bitter of winter and cantaloupe in Uvalde’s summer sun isn’t desirable work for Americans who have grown accustomed to a wealth of inside, air-conditioned jobs.

So Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and a host of rural Texas state legislators said Tuesday they’re supporting a move to invite Mexicans across the border to do the farm work Texans won’t do.

There’s a huge labor problem, Combs told members of the House Rural Caucus. It’s harder and harder to get people to work outside.

The United States allows guest workers, but restrictions on migrant work in the agriculture sector should be relaxed to allow more Mexicans to work on Texas farms, lawmakers say.

My Mexican counterparts support it because it injects money into their economies, Combs said.

Rep. Judy Hawley said lawmakers intend to use the collective weight of our voices to lobby their Washington counterparts, especially U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, for more temporary migrant workers.

Rep. Tracy King, D-Uvalde, said he’d support such legislation to help many of his farming constituents.

But opponents say agriculture guest worker programs exploit workers.

There is no labor shortage in agriculture, said Bruce Goldstein, co-director of Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington D.C. They want cheap foreign labor; they don’t want to offer wages and working conditions that will attract and maintain workers.

Current programs don’t offer the same protection to migrant workers that American workers enjoy, putting workers at the whim of their employers, Goldstein said.

Farmers tell a different story.

Bruce Frasier, president of Dixondale Farms in Carrizo Springs, says he has trouble finding workers to harvest crops for $9 per hour, even though Dimmitt County has a 20 percent unemployment rate.

If I don’t find a remedy real soon I don’t know if I’ll be in business next year, said Frasier, a fourth-generation farmer. He has 34 workers out in the field, but needs about 100 to meet contract deadlines, he said.

When he asked the Texas Workforce Commission to help him find workers, the commission notified 297 unemployed, Frasier said. Not one of them showed up at his farm.

Frasier is working with Gramm on legislation that would tweak the guest worker law to allow farmers to employ guest workers, regardless of the local unemployment rate.

You can’t say that they’re taking Americans’ jobs because we can’t find Americans who will do this, Frasier said. You’re on your hands and knees pulling the onions out of the ground.

Hawley, the Democratic representative from Portland, said she doesn’t support federal legislation that doesn’t adequately protect migrant workers.

We want no situations where workers are taken advantage of, she said.

On The Net:

Texas Department of Agriculture: http://www.agr.state.tx.us/

Texas Workforce Commission: http://www.twc.state.tx.us/