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Growers Urged to Take Vocal Stand on Immigration

Legislative 'window' for federal reforms open; group honors board chair

by Andrew Adams
sonoma county winegrowers
Attorney Monte Lake discusses efforts in Washington, D.C., to draft comprehensive immigration reform laws Friday during a meeting of the Sonoma County Winegrowers at Shone Farms in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Forrestville, Calif.—The wine industry’s labor problem isn’t going to get easier. But if federal lawmakers don’t enact some type of sensible immigration reform, it’s going to get much worse, according to an immigration law expert.

Speaking at a meeting of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, Monte Lake, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm CJ Lake, urged the county’s wine grape growers to contact their lawmakers in support of federal laws that would address the issues of skilled undocumented workers living in the country and overhaul the guest-worker program.

Lake gave the immigration reform update to more than 300 members of the growers group during a meeting held today at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm near Santa Rosa, Calif.

“We have a window here folks, a window, and if it goes down you’ll second-guess yourself, ‘What could I have done,’” Lake said.

Rare opportunity for reform
A lack of farm labor is crimping operations in nearly every segment of agriculture as well as dairy, livestock and food processing. The economic pressure is changing the view of conservative politicians, who had been treating immigration as a cultural issue rather than an economic one, Lake said.

Reform is needed, especially in California, because increased border security and drug cartel violence is deterring Mexicans from crossing the border to seek work in the United States. Additionally, birth rates in Mexico have been in decline for several years, Lake said, adding, “You can not count on our neighbors in the south to send us our work force.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been quietly conducting audits of employer paperwork. Lake said officers will visit a business and check its employment records and then a month later send the company a letter informing the owner that half his employees cannot legally work in the United States and need to be fired. The government is also expected to soon enact mandatory “e-filing” that will make checking a prospective employee’s paperwork as quick to perform as a simple credit check.

What it all means is that employers are having more trouble finding workers for jobs typically held by immigrants, and it’s going to become even harder to keep the ones they have.

Lake said Senate Bill 744, which he estimated as having a better than 50% chance of passing, would address the estimated 11 million undocumented workers living in the United States.

He said many of these immigrants are experienced workers who have been paying taxes and are married with children. The bill would give them a route to legal status as long as they’ve been employed for 100 days or worked 575 hours, paid taxes, haven’t been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor and pay a $400 fine. These workers would also have to have entered the country prior to Dec. 31, 2012.

If they can comply with the proposed requirements, such workers would receive a “blue card” that would allow them to travel across the border and pursue legal status—but they would have to commit to working in agriculture while waiting to become a citizen. In five years, they could seek legal residency.

The Senate bill is expected to see debate next week. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives is still in the works, and it’s unclear if lawmakers can compromise on legislation. Lawmakers are fighting about whether to provide health care for those people already in the United States illegally and providing those people with a path toward permanent residency.

Political uncertainty in the House
Lake said any bill in the House would need momentum to pass because many lawmakers are waiting to see how the political winds shift. While Republicans may feel pressure from their conservative base to hold firm on immigration, the national leadership of the party wants to connect with Latino voters after seeing the majority of them vote to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012. “We don’t know where the power center is,” Lake said.

He told growers that if they support immigration reform and an efficient guest-worker program, now is the time to contact their lawmakers and tell them as much. “You need to make noise,” Lake said. “You’ll only have yourself to blame if you don’t.”

John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, attended Friday’s meeting and said he shared Lake’s assessment of the situation that it was a critical chance for immigration reform. He said the Senate bill appears to be the best solution possible, but it’s crucial that something gets done in both the Senate and the House this summer. “We’ve got to take the opportunity now to get something in place,” he said.

Aguirre also said he perceives a tension between Republicans looking to appease their conservative constituents and pressure from national leadership to soften on immigration a bit. He said the association would be making it clear that growers need better federal laws in place to help improve the labor situation. “We’re going to be pushing very hard on that,” he said.

The winegrowers group also awarded its board chairman, John Balletto, with the group’s Viticulture Award of Excellence. Balletto is the owner of Balletto Vineyard & Winery, which includes 600 acres of vines in the southern Russian River Valley. Balletto has served seven years on the board of the growers’ group, including three years as chairman. He said he has always enjoyed the efficiency of the group as well the good collaboration it shares with the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Tourism group. “I am fortunate to be able to work and serve with so many great people in our industry and on the grape commission board.”

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