Strawberry commission pushes for immigration reform

Pickers harvest strawberries near Santa Maria, Calif., in this 2010 photo. The California Strawberry Commission is among groups advocating for immigration reform in 2014.

SAN FRANCISCO — Count strawberry growers from the Golden State among the farm groups that hope comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality in 2014.

The California Strawberry Commission has played an active role in the push for reforms, hosting rallies along the Central Coast, circulating petitions and sending delegations to Capitol Hill.

Strawberry farms rely heavily on migrant workers, and a lack of reforms put farms and their surrounding communities at risk, commission president Rick Tomlinson asserted during a rally here in November.

“We were definitely hearing about (the need for a bill) from all our districts at various levels,” commission spokeswoman Carolyn O’Donnell said.

“I think some people got very creative about ways to attract and retain labor,” she said. “I also hear there were berries that went unharvested this year because there wasn’t enough of a labor supply.”

The effort comes as immigration reform will be one of President Barack Obama’s top priorities in the coming weeks. Bipartisan consensus about the need for action in the wake of farm labor shortages in recent years gave way in 2013 to partisan posturing, as conservative House Republicans resisted an approach they considered amnesty for illegal immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., said recently that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has taken comprehensive immigration reform off the table in favor of a piecemeal approach to solving the nation’s immigration crisis.

House Democrats, in turn, now hope the piecemeal approach will adequately address workforce and human-rights issues affected by longterm congressional inaction on immigration reform.

A labor crunch throughout the West has been one of the few challenges buffeting a strawberry industry that has set production records in seven of the last eight years, including in 2013. Industry officials say labor shortages have led to millions of dollars in crop losses in the past year.

In a letter to Congress last summer, strawberry commission representatives and Silicon Valley leaders noted that agriculture and related businesses account for about $10 trillion annually in the American economy. They said immigration is critical to those businesses’ success.


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