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Maine's Agriculture Industry Keeping Close Eye on Immigration Debate
01/30/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Every summer, Maine fields are filled with workers from Latin America, Jamaica, and Haiti raking berries and picking apples and broccoli. Many are in the country legally through government work programs - others are not. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, with immigration reform front and center in Washington this week, Maine's agriculture industry is watching the debate closely, and hoping that the reforms will bring good news to Maine's growers.

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Originally Aired: 1/30/2013 5:30 PM

There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. It's not clear how many are in Maine. In the agricultural community, both from the growers' side and from the workers' side, there's a climate of fear," says Steve Meyerhans, a Maine apple grower with orchards in Fairfield and Manchester. The immigration and labor situation in Maine's fields right now is a little uncomfortable, he says.

"There's a climate of fear that, from the workers, that they may be deported or arrested," he says. "And the growers are working under a cloud of fear because they may be shut down or fined for using a migrant worker who may not be - may not have the right documentation."

For growers like Meyerhans, immigrants represent a potential workforce - people whose hands are needed to pick Maine's famous MacIntosh and Cortland apples, rake the rocky blueberry barrens, and pick the heads of Aroostook broccoli. Nothing, he says, has been gained by making it harder for foreign laborers to get legitimate jobs.

His workers come from Jamaica on a government work visa - many of them returning each summer since 1985. But for the millions of others who come looking for work, it makes no sense to just turn them away. Ed Flanagan, president and CEO of Jasper Wyman and Son, agrees.

"We in agriculture have been screaming for over 20 years that we need more labor," he says. Wyman's is the largest producer and processor of wild blueberries in the country. A hundred years ago, the bulk of that berry picking labor might have come from just up the road.  Now, those workers may travel thousands of miles to do the job. And that, says Flanagan has been a political hot potato for years.

"We don't need to be held up as the bad guys for hiring people when, 'After all, Americans would do that work,'" Flanagan says. "That is the biggest falacy going on. Americans don't want to do that work anymore."

The solution, say both Myerhans and Flanagan, is immigration reform.  And both are watching the discussions in Washington, following the defeat of an Agricultural Jobs Bill co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, which would have made it easier for migrant farm laborers to work legally. That bill would have also provided migrants with a path to citizenship.

Flanagan says the bi-partisan proposals being discussed by President Obama and the Senate are a step in the right direction. The Senate plan includes a process for legalization and eventual citizenship for the country's illegal immigrants.

Steve Meyerhans says that path to citizenship would help solve some of the nation's agricultural labor crunch. Failing that, he says, there's another way forward, especially if citizenship turns out to be a deal-breaker, as it was in the defunct Ag jobs bill.

"There should be a streamlined and easy legal guest worker program," Meyerhans says. "And I think we could probably give everyone, all of the 10 or 11 million, legal status as guest workers so that they'd be free to cross the border to go back to their homeland."

Meyerhans says in addition to helping Maine's fruit growers, a liberal guest worker program could also make it easier for separated migrant families to get back together SINCE illegal immigrants cannot travel freely back and forth over the border.

David Bell is executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission. He too is watching the discussion in Washington. "One thing that the farm community is really looking for Congress and the government to solve is to figure out a system of documentation, visas, etcetera," he says.

Currently, farmers bear the legal onus of hiring illegal workers. But Bell says that with the reforms, he'd like to see that onus shifted to the government. "You know, with fake documentation and things like that it becomes increasingly difficult for a farmer to discern who is legal and who is not," Bell says.

At this point, the Senate has put forth a bi-partisan proposal, but there's no guarantee it will stay that way as the finer points are hammered out. One sticking point may be over whether increased border security is needed before addressing citizenship.



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