Farr says the latest immigration crackdown may breathe new life into AgJOBS.

Border Battles: Looking Up: Congressman Sam Farr has actually found reason to smile in the face of more punitive immigration policy. —Mark C. Anderson

It’s hard to find a silver lining in the US Department of Homeland Security’s crackdown on workers with phony Social Security numbers. The order announced recently by Secretary Michael Chertoff pressures employers to fire undocumented immigrants. This could lead Salinas Valley agriculture companies to purge their workforce, leaving hundreds of immigrants without a job.

But Rep. Sam Farr sees a small grain of hope. Farr says if the beefed-up enforcement pisses off enough constituents, it may push Congress to pass the AgJOBS Act of 2007, a bill that would allow undocumented farm workers to harvest crops legally.

“I don’t think there is a good chance,” Farr says. “I think it’s the only chance. The only chance is indeed if people react to Chertoff’s order.”

AgJOBS was part of a comprehensive immigration reform package that failed this summer. The ag industry, along with the United Farm Workers union, supported the broad proposal that included a path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, as well as a guest worker program. The package, however, couldn’t muster enough Republican votes in the Senate. Wide-scale reform will likely have to wait until a new president sits in the Oval Office.

Now the same groups that lobbied for immigration reform, Farr says, will be punished by the increased scrutiny over Social Security numbers. “The people who are supporting this immigration bill are the ones that are getting kicked in the teeth by this order,” he says.

The Social Security Administration already sends out letters to employers when an employee’s number doesn’t match government records. But starting Sept. 14, employers who receive a no-match letter will have to fire the worker if the discrepancy isn’t resolved in 90 days. Chertoff threatened to fine employers—from $275 to $11,000—if they don’t get rid of undocumented workers.

This could be devastating to the local ag industry since it relies heavily on undocumented labor. Farr estimates that as high as 80 percent of the county’s farm workers don’t have papers.

Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, says the new rules could create labor shortages. “Before you could not use one of these no-match letters as the basis of terminating the employee,” Bogart says. “But now once you get one of these letters it starts the clock ticking.”

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The no-match letters are part of a larger punitive approach to immigration led by the Bush Administration. While virtually no reforms have been passed to improve rights for immigrants, the White House has beefed up the border and increased citizenship application costs.

“It’s more enforcement without really addressing the problem of immigration,” says Cesar Lara, executive director of the Salinas-based Citizenship Project. “It’s pretty bad, and they are playing with people’s lives.”

Both Lara and Bogart hope Congress will pass AgJOBS as a stand-alone bill. The legislation would enable many undocumented farm workers to obtain temporary immigration status and become permanent residents if they continue to work in agriculture. The bill, which was first introduced in 2003, is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

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