Olathe Farmer Cautiously Watching, Hoping Lawmakers Can Work Together
WESTERN SLOPE – As over 100 migrant workers pick and package sweet corn from fields west of Olathe, nearly 2,000 miles away, in Washington D.C., members of Congress continue to pick at each other over immigration reform.
These migrant or guest workers are, in the eyes of Olathe farmer John Harold, the most important component of the process that delivers the Olathe Sweet brand of sweet corn across the U.S.
On Thursday, July 18, at dawn, rummaging through rows of damp corn stalks, members of a mostly local harvesting crew tore the first ears of the Tuxedo Corn Company's annual Olathe Sweet sweet corn crop from the ground. By 8 a.m., when Harold arrived, the crew had harvested just two truckloads.
"By 8, we usually have six to seven truckloads already done," he said.
But help was on the way. A couple of hundred miles to the southwest, in Nogales, Ariz., 97 members of Harold's workforce were returning to Olathe from Mexico by bus to help with the harvest.
Although Harold appreciates his local workforce, he and his crew chiefs have been waiting for these "professionals" (with H-2A visas) to arrive and lead the company's efforts to produce the 650,000 cases of corn the company is under contract to deliver. With each case containing 48 ears, the 2013 crop will total around 3.2 million ears – 80 percent less than what Tuxedo wholesaler Kroger has ordered.
“They must have known something I didn’t,” Harold said of the order, “but we just didn’t plant that much.”
Although Tuxedo Corn workers can’t deliver as much as their wholesalers have ordered, they’re his business’s most important resource, Harold says, with their future in jeopardy as they await finalization of new immigration legislation that’s now stalled in Congress.
Without a guest worker program, Harold said, "Our business will not survive.” If guest workers are kept from coming to his fields, Harold said, “Farming as we known it in the past 15 years will not survive.”
As Harold wrote in an op-ed piece distributed by Jenny Davies-Schley of Progressive Promotions, LLC, Tuxedo Corn Company's "specialty crops demand seasoned, experienced farm workers who can withstand hours of hard, physical work in the fields under the broiling sun. And as seasonal operations, farms can’t provide full-time, year-round work. These conditions make our jobs unattractive to local workers, who quite frankly, are not at all that interested in joining our workforce.”
Out in the field, Harold continued the train of thought. “They just don't have that work ethic like from south of the border," he said of the local workforce. Every year, Tuxedo advertises its jobs locally. Twenty years ago, Harold said, area high school students picked sweet corn at harvest time, but today, he can’t count on local workers.
"They don't have that pride, that important work ethic," Harold said, remembering one local hire who lasted just 20 minutes before walking off the job.
Tuxedo will deliver corn to its wholesalers this year, but Harold continues to closely monitor the ongoing debate in the U.S. House of Representatives, following the passage of the bill passed by the U.S. Senate just last month that lays the groundwork for overhauling the country's immigration laws for the first time since 1986, creating a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents by streamlining a guest worker visa program and strengthening security along the U.S.-Mexican border.
In a 68-32 vote, with 14 Republicans joining a united Democratic caucus, the Senate passed legislation initially drafted by the four Democrats and four Republicans in the chamber's so-called "Gang of Eight."
One member is Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a member of the Senate's Agriculture Committee who has worked closely with Colorado growers, including Tuxedo Corn Company for the last three years, Harold reported.
"There’s no question the agriculture sector needs a bill to fix our immigration system,” according to a statement issued to The Watch by Bennet’s office, “Senator Bennet has visited with farmers like John Harold all around the state who are forced to watch their crops rot on the vines because they don’t have the workers they need. The current visa system is outdated and inefficient. It doesn’t meet their needs. The Senate immigration bill creates a streamlined system and includes protection for American workers and wages."
The new measure, if enacted, would establish a new visa program for low-skilled workers on American farms, replacing the “overly bureaucratic" H-2A with a new nonimmigrant agricultural visa program, or "blue card," allowing them to cross the border in search of work and stay for up to 60 days after one job is over, instead of having to go directly home.
"This is the best guest worker program I've ever seen,” said Harold. “It's beneficial to the farmer; it's beneficial to the labor; it’s the most cost-effective.”
The current system is so slow to approve H-2A work visas that the "rate of on-time delivery in the H-2A visa program is only 55 percent," he said. "How long would you keep your job if 55 percent of the time you got it done, and 45 percent of the time you didn't?" Harold asked, suggesting a lack of accountability. "The key is going to be if we can convince a few house members that it's good for the country,” he said of the bill.
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), a member of the U.S. House, concurs that the current visa program needs improvement, adding that any legislation passed shouldn’t unnecessarily jeopardize U.S. border security.
“The immigration discussion is still at the early stages,” said Tipton, “and the House is going to be putting forward a plan of its own. Regardless of the vehicle for immigration reform, it’s important that as Congress works on reform, [it] does so in a way that ensures the problems facing the current system are permanently fixed....In order to accomplish that, verifiable border security must be the first step, and reform legislation should also include a strengthened guest-worker program.”
In his op-ed piece, Harold said there are an estimated 180,000 undocumented immigrants in Colorado.
"We’ve spent the money and implemented the fencing, border patrols and drone surveillance to make the border secure," Harold wrote, adding that illegal immigration "across the southern border was zero last year.
“And as the current bill contains billions more for border security,” he charged, “there is no longer any room to use border security as an excuse to do nothing.”
While the House debates the Senate’s bill, senators including Bennet are using the momentum of the immigration bill to reassure Colorado growers labor their troubles will abate, in years to come.
"The Senate bill is a victory for rural Colorado,” said Bennet, who, in the statement, voiced his hope that “the strong bipartisan support in the Senate and support across Colorado will help the House understand we need to pass an immigration bill to help our economy and our communities.”