Northwest farm season arrives amid immigration debate

Senator hosts forum aimed at ensuring stable work force

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YAKIMA — Several Washington farm leaders joined three immigrants at a forum Thursday before Democratic Sen. Patty Murray to stress the importance of ensuring a stable labor force and reuniting families torn apart by deportations.

The immigration forum came as Congress prepares to consider sweeping legislation that would create a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people who have entered the country illegally, improve access for work visas and spend billions of dollars more to secure the border.

The bill isn't perfect, Murray said, but it's a compromise toward improvement.

"I don't think there's anyone who could say the immigration system works today in this country," she said.

The Senate probably will take up the bill in June.

Washington agriculture leaders have been among the biggest proponents of immigration reform in the state.

Growers face not having enough labor, and families fear being ripped apart as the federal government steps up efforts to deport immigrants who entered the country illegally, said Bruce Allen of Columbia Reach Pack, a fruit packer, and Chiawana Orchards.

"You couldn't ask for a worse pot of stew," Allen said.

This year, workers already are in fields picking asparagus and laboring to protect fruit trees from freezing in the cold spring nights, as growers worry whether they'll have enough employees to harvest crops at the height of the growing season.

Many growers scrambled last fall to find pickers during a record apple harvest.

Those labor uncertainties are impeding overall economic development in the agricultural sector, said Mike Broadhead, president of Central Valley Bank.

Agriculture revenue comprises 42 percent of the bank's $120 million portfolio.

"Do you really want to commit capital with the uncertainty of labor?" he asked. "All we're after is a firm solution."

Growers reported monthly employment of nearly 106,000 seasonal farm workers in the state last year, but they also reported a nearly 9 percent labor shortage in September alone. That's the highest mark in six years and the second straight September of increased labor shortages in Washington orchards, according to John Wines, economic analyst for the state Employment Security Department.