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Obama Immigration Plan Gets Tepid Response From Wine Industry

January 2015
by Jane Firstenfeld
Immigrant labor” welcome=
The high cost of living in California makes it a difficult place to live for many immigrants working in the agriculture sector.

Washington, D.C.—The Nov. 20 announcement of U.S. president Barack Obama’s executive order for immigration reform was welcomed but deemed insufficient by many wine/vineyard organizations—and the attorneys who serve them. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, meanwhile, have voted to roll back the executive order.

Melissa Harms, whose law firm in Larkspur, Calif., specializes in immigration law strategy, explained the provisions of Obama’s order in a blog post for Dickenson Peatman & Fogerty. They include:

Deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA): Those who came to the United States before age 16 and meet certain qualifications can remain without fear of deportation and receive work authorization. The expanded program removes the upper age limit for qualified applicants and extends the work authorization to three years.

Deferred action for parents (DAP): Allows parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent resident children to remain united with their families. Parents must have been in the United States since Jan. 1, 2010, and pass a criminal background check.

Provisional waivers: Expanded program allows spouses of lawful permanent residents and children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to apply for waivers. Waivers are required when foreign nationals are eligible for green cards but have been in the United States unlawfully.

Forthcoming changes would include advantages for employees who have approved immigrant visas and are awaiting a priority date. Revamped immigration regulations also will permit promotion or transfer of workers who are awaiting visa approval.

For wineries, vineyards and other agriculture concerns faced with a shrinking labor force, the changes don’t offer much solace. “It doesn’t really touch seasonal workers,” Harms noted. “The amnesty-type programs will only affect those who’ve been here continuously.”

The California Association of Winegrape Growers is “in a neutral mode” about the order, according to CAWG president John Aguirre. “From a policy perspective, we don’t see the action as being extraordinarily beneficial to the industry.”

What’s needed, he said, is complete, comprehensive immigration reform. This means action from Congress. “Agriculture has extraordinary issues, because agriculture has many workers who are not properly documented. My concern is that (the order) may have set comprehensive immigration back,” Aguirre said. “It doesn’t really do much for a large portion of the ag workforce if it doesn’t help them in a specific legal way.”

The president made it clear that he wants to focus on enforcement against criminals. “To that extent, people in the ag workforce are comforted. Perhaps it will bring more calm and reassurance,” Aguirre said. “Consistently, with the slightest rumors (of INS crackdowns), people don’t show up for work.”

“I’m concerned the action is more about political posturing than rolling up the sleeves and getting to work,” he said. “Compromise is necessary: No way any one group is getting everything they want.”

In a statement for Wines & Vines, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents most of Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties on California’s North Coast (and is a grape grower himself), said:

“The president’s executive actions will help ensure a more stable workforce for our wine industry. Employers will be able to hire more individuals authorized to work in our country, and employees will be able to work without fear of deportation....

“While a step in the right direction, the president’s executive actions are no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. Truly fixing our broken immigration system will require Congressional action.”

Richard Lopez, co-owner of Lopez Farm Labor Contractor in Kerman, Calif., joined the business founded by his father in 1999 after he graduated from the University of California, Davis. The company deals with about 1,000 farm laborers every year, placing about 70% in Central Valley vineyards.

After characterizing the act as a “Band-Aid,” he added. “As it stands, it won’t be productive,” at least in terms of ag labor. “Once they have documentation, they tend to go to other industries,” Lopez observed.

“Labor is a big obstacle” for the vineyard industry, Lopez said. “Growers have been fighting for a long time, and the labor’s just not there. Here in Fresno County alone, we’ve seen about 15,000 vineyard acres torn out and replaced with almonds (see related news on page 20). And, at least in California areas like Napa and Paso Robles, the cost of living is too high (for laborers). These people move on to other states.”

Michael Blaylock is winemaker at Quady Winery, a 50,000-case dessert wine specialist in Madera County, Calif. A long-time client of Lopez, he too believes strongly in immigration reform. Under the current executive action, he said, “Nobody’s going to come forward” and potentially jeopardize their residence in the United States. “Things are going to go on just as they were.”

He noted that locally, “Our population is predominantly Hispanic. Congressional legislation would affect everybody.”

Blaylock explained that in the Central Valley, source of most California grapes including raisin and table varieties as well as wine grapes, “Farm labor is less used than mechanization.”

Although mechanized harvesters are expensive, not well adapted for many small-scale vineyards (and commonly produced overseas), “We went mechanical five years ago.”

Among Quady’s own and leased vineyards, “Only one field is hand-picked. It’s a different industry than it used to be.” Pruning, however, remains a specialized skill, requiring trained workers.

Most of Quady’s seasonal labor changes every year, though. “Usually only the foreman or supervisor is experienced,” Blaylock said. “Everyon e else is new.”

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