Speeding toward another busy harvest season, the big concern for Florida’s fruit and vegetable growers remains federal immigration reform legislation now moving through Congress.

Even though agriculture would be phased in over three years under the proposed E-Verify bill, H.R. 2885, the prospect of farming without as much as two-thirds of the current workforce alarms the industry.

As a result, labor dominated much of the discussion at the recent Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA) annual convention at Manalapan, Fla.

Increasing  Floridians’ pressure to quickly voice objections, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee approved the E-Verify bill, called the Legal Workforce Act, as the Florida producers met. That clears the way for it to be considered by the full House of Representatives.

“This is the bill that has agriculture and other business scared to death,” says Monte Lake, partner in C.J. Lake LLC, a Washington D.C. law firm.

Alan Temple, president of B&W Quality Growers, Fellsmere, Fla., says, “The biggest issue we face is, are we going to have a legal, stable workforce to harvest our crops?”

Without knowing the answer to that touchy question, now a political hot potato, the future looks uncertain to many growers. E-Verify, if it becomes the law of the land, would require employers to run potential workers’ identification through Social Security or Department of Homeland Security databases. Undocumented workers could not be employed.

The E-Verify federal database already exists. Employers could use it now to check potential workers’ immigration status. Few do that, however, instead relying on identification provided by the workers themselves.

Florida agriculture employs 120,000 to 150,000 workers and 65 percent are currently undocumented, says Rob Williams, director of the Florida Legal Services Migrant Justice Project.

“What certain people want to do is make their lives so difficult that they self-deport, give up, go home. These workers have 35,000 to 40,000 children, and many of them are U.S. citizens. The workforce becomes more precarious every day.”

Williams wants to give workers legal status, improve conditions for workers now in the U.S. and slow the entry of additional foreign workers. New border tactics will be required in order to accomplish that and should be pursued before considering  immigration legislation, he says.

Lake, normally on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Williams, agrees. “The fence is not going to work as long as people are economically driven. It’s an excuse to not deal with the issue,” he says.

Agriculture groups worked together to help defeat an E-Verify law in the Florida legislature during the past session. Similar to immigration laws recently passed by legislators in Georgia, Alabama and Arizona, it would have required worker documentation much like the proposed federal law now under consideration.

Mike Stuart, FFVA president, says agricultural interests must continue to be unified against any new legislation in the next session in Tallahassee.

“We need to broaden this big coalition and strengthen it as much as we can,” Stuart says. “The battle is not over yet and we will be spending a lot of time working on that in Tallahassee. Any labor bill will need a coalition of ag groups to fight it.”

Lake points out that agricultural workers fled Georgia at a critical time this year due to the E-Verify law passed by the state legislature. “States are passing laws because Congress failed to act. Georgia lost 11,000 workers at the prospect of a state E-Verify law,” he says.

States may not be able to put significant muscle into enforcement, but such legislation makes farmworkers uneasy.

“E-Verify laws at the state level, by and large, are symbolic,” says Williams. “States don’t have resources to enforce them. But at any moment they could come down on you. The immigration restrictionists are brilliant.

“There’s a mish-mash of state laws. We need to get business interests to want a national law. It was kind of a miracle that the Florida legislature voted down E-Verify. At one time I thought it was a done deal.”

He notes that three immigration bills are at some stage of consideration by Congress.

In addition to the E-Verify bill introduced by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the others include a guest farmworker proposal from Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and another by Howard Berman (D-Calif.) that would legalize 1 million workers, stabilizing the workforce.

“I don’t expect any of the three to pass,” Williams says.

Regardless of how they fare, the immigration dispute, cut along political party lines, could be far from over. “Immigration restrictionists say they’re saving U.S. jobs. Well, they’re wrong,” Lake says.

“The workers are here. Their children are here. They’re not going back,” Williams says. “It’s in our interest for them not to go back, because their children are U.S. citizens, in many cases. We’re better off to hold to our values and allow them to become citizens.

“Twenty-five years ago we legalized 1.2 million farmworkers; since then, one-third have become citizens. Is it such a problem that 300,000 became citizens?”

Growers can expect little help from the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program designed to legally bring in temporary workers from other countries, with  employers bearing extra costs for transportation and housing.

A recent survey by the National Council of Agricultural Employers found that 47 percent of employers using the H-2A program were unhappy with it; 72 percent of those surveyed said H-2A workers arrived an average of 22 days after they were needed on the farms.

The H-2A program needs big changes to help agricultural producers, says Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association president. “The broken H-2A system some have relied on has become expensive and unworkable,” he says.

“What we need to do is put U.S. workers on a level playing field with H-2A workers,” says Wiliams. “The Berman bill is clearly the best short-term solution for agriculture. It would guarantee you a workforce for five or six years.”