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Illegals on the farm: thorny issue for US. Could California's agriculture survive without Mexican workers?

The bounty of the land surrounds you in this lush valley. Grape vineyards. Almond trees. English walnut groves. Peach orchards. As far as the eye can see, it's a cornucopia of American agriculture. But amid this plenty, there is a perennial concern: Will there be enough hands to harvest the crops? The prosperity of this valley, the richest in California, depends on the labor of thousands of Mexicans who enter the country illegally. Of this state's 350,000 farm workers, officials say as many as 250,000 are illegal aliens. And another quarter of a million are estimated to be on farms in other states.

This month, Congress tackles the problem of illegal immigration, and the status of all these undocumented farm workers will be one of the thorniest issues.

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Could California agriculture survive without Mexican workers? Could Americans be found to do the work? Do the Mexicans hold down wages and discourage Americans from seeking farm employment? Should Congress approve a new, temporary worker program to legalize what is already going on?

The issues are complicated. They involve the willingness of American workers to do hot, dirty, tedious labor; a population explosion and grinding poverty in Mexico; growing international competition in farm produce markets; the flow of immigration and its effects on American society; and US relations with its Latin neighbors.

The stories one hears on a quick swing through California illustrate the difficulty of the situation:

In Sacramento, a government official tells of a California grape grower who has begun raising grapes in Chile. Labor costs are so low in South America that the farmer can grow grapes there, ship them to the United States under refrigeration, and still sell them to California supermarkets cheaper than his own California-grown grapes. Similar competition is cropping up from other nations in citrus, tomatoes, olives, and other produce, and it is putting added pressure on US farmers to hold down costs.

Near Fresno, a congressional aide recalls testimony he heard several years ago from a boysenberry farmer. Just before harvest, federal agents swept through a nearby field and scared away the farmer's illegal immigrant workers. They would not come back, so the farmer advertised in Fresno for US workers. Despite high local unemployment, no one showed up, and he lost the entire crop.

The farmer has since gone out of the boysenberry business.

In Winters, Calif., a veteran farmer talks of overplanting and the current glut of produce in the state. One woman grower near Winters, he says, has an entire field of grapes that is rotting this month on the vines. No one will buy them -- at any price. The loss of immigrant labor would be one more blow to an already-troubled farm economy, he says.

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While California growers bemoan their problems, however, there are some labor experts who decry the effects of immigrant workers.

Vernon M. Briggs Jr., a professor of economics and labor expert at Cornell University, notes that there are 29 million Americans citizens -- over one-fourth of the labor force -- who at present earn $3.35 to $4 an hour. These workers are in direct competition with immigrant labor.

Dr. Briggs says: ``It is these [American] workers, of all races, that have carried the brunt of the competition from illegal immigration. . . .

``Many people repeatedly say that US citizens will no longer do those jobs [such as farm laborer],'' he notes. ``Well, I've asked those people to name one occupation in which US citizens are no longer the vast majority [of workers] in that occupation. And so far, no one has been able to name one -- whether that be farm workers, maids, hotels workers, restaurants, or what have you.

``There are millions of US citizens who are working hard in those occupations. And one of the reasons that most of them are having a tough time making improvements in their working conditions is the competition of illegal immigrants.''

California officials say the average field wage for workers currently runs about $5.50 an hour. That would almost surely rise if immigrants were not available, they concede.

Even so, some date pickers in the Coachella Valley, for example, are said to earn as much as $26,000 a year. Grape harvesters can make even more, with some reportedly earning $30,000 to $60,000 a year on a piece-rate basis, according to Senate staff members.

If Congress slaps heavy fines on the employers who use illegal aliens, farmers here could be severely hurt, congressional sources say. Yet the current status of Mexican workers cannot continue, they admit.

One solution may be the Rodino-Mazzoli bill, which will be discussed in House hearings Sept. 9. The bill deals with the problem by imposing a gradual, three-year phase-out of illegal workers.

At the same time, the bill provides for speeded-up, legalized admissions for foreign nationals who are needed to harvest crops.

To make sure these nationals return home again, a chunk of their wages -- perhaps 20 percent -- would be withheld until they left the US.

Second of four articles. Next: Amnesty for illegals?

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