By MITCH LIES
HERMISTON, Ore. -- A Washington state Hispanic affairs official urged farmers to speak out in support of immigration reform that provides residency status to farmworkers and a path to citizenship.
"You need to start holding your legislators accountable (for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform)," said Uriel Iniguez, executive director of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
"Somebody else is driving the train right now regarding the immigration debate," Iniguez said. "I've encouraged the ag industry to be a little more forceful on this."
In a presentation on farm labor issues at the Hermiston Farm Fair, Iniguez said stricter border enforcement and anti-immigration policies are resulting in fewer undocumented immigrants making their way to the Northwest.
Also, increased emphasis on deporting undocumented immigrants and the Great Recession that hit the U.S. in 2007 have led to many immigrants returning to Mexico.
Undocumented immigrants make up between 75 and 90 percent of the farm labor workforce, according to Jorge Antonio-Valenzuela, Northwest regional director of United Farm Workers, who also spoke at the presentation.
Of the migrant labor workforce, more than 72 percent are foreign born, with 68 percent from Mexico and 20 percent from other Latin American countries, Iniguez said, quoting statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center.
"The Latino community and the agricultural industry depend on each other," Iniguez said, "and we have since the 1940s."
Iniguez said labor shortages have become acute in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona -- states that have passed harsh anti-immigration laws in recent years.
Rather than leaving those states for neighboring states, many workers have returned to Mexico, he said.
Also, he said, tighter border security has led to fewer immigrants trying to cross the border illegally, and, consequently, fewer making it across.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the influx of immigrants from Mexico to the U.S. peaked around 2000 at 770,000. That number dropped to 140,000 by 2010.
"Fewer people are trying because it is harder to get across the border," Iniguez said.
Also, Iniguez said, when the Great Recession hit in 2007 and construction jobs fell off, rather than return to farm work, many of the undocumented immigrants working in construction returned to their homelands.
"We were thinking a lot of those people would go back to agriculture," Iniguez said. "That has happened, but not as much as we thought. Many people went back to Mexico."
Also, immigration officials have stepped up efforts to deport people working illegally in the U.S., Iniguez said. The number of Mexicans removed by immigration enforcement officers has nearly doubled since 2001, growing from 151,000 in 2001 to 282,000 in 2010, he said.
Iniguez and Valenzuela said they were encouraged by the recent presidential election in which the Latino vote was considered a big influence on the outcome. And, they said, there is renewed interest in Congress that comprehensive immigration reform could pass in the coming year.
"We have an opportunity," Iniguez said. "We have a window. You need to explain to your legislators how (a lack of comprehensive immigration reform) is affecting the economy of their districts."