H-SANTA MARIA

Jun 7, 2011 9:16 PM by Ariel Wesler

Farmers fear national crackdown on illegal workers

Local farmers in Santa Maria are concerned about talk of a new immigration bill that could severely impact their workforce. The proposed bill would require all American businesses to run their employees through e-verify. The government program checks to make sure a person is eligible to work in the U.S. legally. Farmers say the law would wipe out their workforce and damage the entire industry.

It's no secret the ag industry is filled with undocumented workers. In fact, it's estimated about 80 percent of field workers in the United States are working here illegally.

"We're seeing very sophisticated identification. They come with holograms," said Victor Tognazzini, a longtime Santa Maria farmer.

He says the E-Verify bill would leave him without anyone to harvest produce and U.S. citizens won't take the jobs.

"Put in an order for 80 people and we'd get 3. They would work for a matter of a few hours and then wouldn't work again," Tognazzini said.

He wants to see some kind of a guest worker program.

"We could have people who would come up and return," he said.

While lawmakers are still struggling to deal with those who are already here, some say there should be no exceptions.

"The law is the law and that's the way it is. That's how I've been brought up, to mind the law whether you like it or not," said Ruth Yubeta.

With agriculture being the number one industry in California, Tognazzini say paying workers more would mean higher produce prices for us all.

"If you come in and start playing with the workforce in a state that's already deeply in debt," he said. "We'll probably never recover."

Opponents argue the e-verify program is not always updated properly and even legal workers could be denied jobs. Last year, the United Farm Workers started a "Take Our Jobs" campaign. Out of the 86,000 people interested, only 11 actually took jobs.

Last week, the supreme court approved an Arizona law that allows the state to penalize businesses for hiring illegal workers.

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