Shelby: It is the height of harvest in Washington state’s apple orchards, and grower Al Robison is racing against time.
Al Robison: We’re just running out of days.
Shelby: He needs to clear his 240-acres of apples before it gets too cold and the apples freeze. He usually has eighty pickers. This year he could barely find sixty.
Robison: Once they’re frozen, that quality goes downhill fast. And after a couple days, you’re done.
Shelby: ‘Help wanted’ signs are planted up and down the Wenatchee Valley, nicknamed the apple capital of the world. Right now, this state desperately needs more than 10,000 apple pickers.
So where are all the workers? A lot of growers are convinced that all the talk about illegal immigration in Washington, D.C. has scared away the apple pickers in Washington state. Most of the pickers in Washington are migrant workers, and an estimated 66,000 are here illegally. That is about 72% of all farm hands statewide.
Robison: Whether they’re legal or illegal, they’re not traveling.
Shelby: Migrant worker Alfonso Garcia has noticed a change. He has a green card, but some of the other workers do not.
Alfonso Garcia: In this last year, they deported more and arrested more because they don’t have a license.
Shelby: The labor shortage in Washington has put the $1.4 billion apple crop at risk. According to Robison, it is work that most americans won’t do.
Robison: You can say, ‘oh well, I don’t pay enough.’ I’m paying $150 a day. Unemployed people who are on unemployment aren’t willing to get off of that and come work.
Shelby: Robison isn’t the only one with a worker shortage. Farmers in other states say they are having similar problems. According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, a record number of immigrants were removed from the country this year.
“Overall in fiscal year 2011, ICE removed or returned nearly 397,000 individuals, the largest number in the agency’s history.”
Shelby: While the Obama administration says the emphasis has been on deporting criminals, farmers across the country say the crackdown is scaring their workers away.
Robison: They’re running scared because of this new law. I’m in trouble, bad trouble. There are not enough documented people here to supply that work force.
Shelby: In Alabama, farmers say they could lose money, and even their farms, due to strict new immigration laws in their state.
“We won’t be farming next year. We won’t have enough money to stay afloat if something does not change.”
Shelby: Across the country, people are calling on lawmakers to create a new guest worker program that allows people to come here legally for harvest and then return home.
Back in Washington, Al Robison worries that if something doesn’t change, this year could be the last in his family’s three generations of farming.
Robison: It will fold. People will go out of business.
Shelby: Shelby Holliday, Channel One News.