YAKIMA - A federal sweep of 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states in October that turned up hundreds of undocumented workers gave the agriculture industry a wake-up call.
Other high-profile companies could be targets of similar raids and investigations, said Dan Fazio, assistant director for government relations, Washington State Farm Bureau, Olympia.
It's against the law to hire or retain illegal workers; at the same time, it's illegal to fire workers who have reasonable-looking documents, Fazio noted. Employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants or fail to meet record-keeping requirements, can be subject to civil and criminal penalties.
By some estimates, the United States has as many as 10 million undocumented workers, with as many as 10,000 in Washington state.
The federal agency that deals with immigration has undergone a major change. The former Immigration and Naturalization Service, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has become the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and is now under the Department of Homeland Security. Enforcement has been heightened because of national security concerns.
Farmers, food warehouses and processors and other agriculture-related businesses need a dependable work force, Fazio said at at the state Farm Bureau's annual meeting, held Nov. 17-20 in Yakima. Legal, motivated, farm-skilled workers are vital for agriculture to survive.
That's why immigration reform is important, Fazio said. Legislation should not displace American workers, nor should it provide incentives for illegal immigration, he said. Farm Bureau supports two immigration reform bills now before Congress.
In September, the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003, known as AgJOBS, was introduced. The bill would provide a one-time opportunity for undocu- mented farmworkers to earn legal status if they continue working in agriculture for a certain length of time, Fazio said.
The bill would reform the H-2a agricultural guest worker program and allow employers to pay guest workers the average wage for workers in the same commodity and occupation in a geographic region. It would also streamline the H-2a certification process.
The other bill, known as the Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act, introduced in July, would create an H-4a visa program and allow workers to apply for a temporary work permit good for up to three years, Fazio said. State minimum wages would prevail.
A third bill, introduced last week, is being reviewed by the Farm Bureau.
To help employers avoid a "Wal-Mart problem," the Farm Bureau has scheduled a live, national conference call 8-9:30 a.m. PST Dec. 4. During the call, labor lawyers will relay the kind of information and advice they are giving their clients.
In Washington state, the conference call can be heard in the Washington Fruit conference room in Yakima, the Sakuma Brothers conference room in Mount Vernon, and in Wenatchee at a place to be announced.
The call is free for Farm Bureau members, $25 for non-members.