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Guest Worker Program for Agriculture Sought

South Florida Sun Sentinel – April 6, 2009

Unemployment is soaring. Yet advocates and Congressional leaders want a guest worker program that would legalize tens of thousands of undocumented agriculture workers.

Proponents say they want a legal work force to pick the nation’s tomatoes, peppers and lettuce. Opponents call it amnesty for illegal workers at a time Americans are losing their jobs.

“If you can’t use legal workers and pay American wages and provide American working conditions, then you shouldn’t be in America,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for reduced immigration. “America shouldn’t have peasant jobs.”

U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif, plans to re-introduce an agriculture jobs bill after Congress gets back from its two-week Spring Break, an aide said. Local farmers and advocates said they need it to legalize their workers who sustain South Florida’s $1.6 billion agriculture business. Despite the current economic woes, they said, Americans are not lining up to work stooped over in the fields.

“We have not had a native, local American worker harvesting our crops for the last 15 to 18 years,” said Rick Roth, who grows vegetables, sugar cane, sod and trees in Belle Glade.

At the current rate, workers get up to 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, according to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker advocacy group. A worker would have to pick 2 1/2 tons of tomatoes in one day to make the equivalent of Florida’s minimum wage, said Maghan Cohorst, of the coalition.

Experts estimate up to 80 percent of Florida’s 150,000 agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants. Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties are the state’s top two farm-producing counties; Broward County Click here for restaurant inspection reports ranks 33rd, putting out about $50 million worth of agriculture products, according to the 2007 federal agriculture census.

The agriculture jobs bill is similar to one that died in the last session of Congress, but backers are counting on the support of President Barack Obama, who co-sponsored the previous bill as a senator.

Stan Wood, who owns Everglades Botanical Services in Davie, has hired immigrants for 44 years in his citrus and nursery business. He “virtually never” hired Americans, and none have come seeking jobs in the current downturn, either.

He had one word for the notion Americans are losing out to undocumented immigrants: “Preposterous.”

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