Immigration laws need overhaul

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Editorial

Everyone likes family farms. They are, in every sense, the economic backbone of the United States.

By growing crops and raising livestock, the 2 million family farms in the U.S. create value that drives both the rural economy and a large portion of the nation's economy.

Family farms also create jobs. Farmers hire permanent or temporary employees to help with fieldwork, harvests and any number of other chores that are part of running a farm.

One would think that this was a good thing. After all, putting people to work is a top priority for every politician, from President Barack Obama down to every local county commissioner.

Why is it, then, that the federal government takes on the role of Darth Vader when it comes to addressing the employment needs of family farms? More importantly, why are farmers punished for the sins of others?

Take immigration enforcement, please. When investigators from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement come around to audit, they aren't necessarily looking to arrest illegal immigrants and ship them home. Rather, they are going after the farmers who hired them. Even if the workers had all of the proper cards and paperwork, it is the farmers' responsibility to establish whether they are authentic. This makes farmers the enforcement arm of ICE.

It is ironic that ICE wants farmers to enforce immigration law while the federal government is suing the state of Arizona to make it stop enforcing the exact same laws.

The folks in Washington, D.C., are so confused they don't know whether or how to enforce immigration laws. And they all have a dazed look when questioned on the subject.

Family farmers not only get to enforce immigration laws for Uncle Sam, they get to jump through even more legal hoops when they hire temporary employees. Depending on whether a family farm "recruits" workers -- like taking out a help-wanted ad -- they may be forced to follow the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, a complex law designed to protect farmworkers and confuse everyone else.

The Washington Farm Bureau recently sponsored an Internet webinar on the law. It featured two Farm Bureau labor experts and a representative of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The take-home message was this: Watch out. Family farmers must meet the letter of the law when hiring temporary workers or face the consequences.

The problem is the letter of the law isn't as clear as the bureaucrats would like it to be. Judges around the country have offered a variety of interpretations of the law, creating gray areas.

What makes the law even more daunting is that family farmers can't contact the Department of Labor and get approval for how they hire seasonal workers. Instead, the department has to perform an investigation.

Which, of course, is a waste of time for the department and a bad case of heartburn for the farmer.

The time has come for someone in Congress to take up the issue of farm labor. Whether it's in the form of the AgJOBS bill that has languished in Congress for years or some other legislation, it simply must be done.

Whether you consider the immigration law or the federal laws that cover seasonal workers, they are vague and backward to the point of being useless.

And the bureaucrats don't know whether they are supposed to enforce the laws or put pressure on farmers to do the job for them.

It's time for all of the operatives at ICE and the Department of Labor to go back to Washington, D.C., and try to get this right.

We don't need Darth Vader. We need clear, consistent and far-minded labor and immigration laws.

As it stands now, we have none of the above.

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