By Daniel C. Vock, Stateline.org –
WASHINGTON — In Garden City, a sprawling blue-collar town on the western plains of Kansas, local businesses struggle to find enough workers. At the end of last year, the unemployment rate in the county stood at just 3.9 percent. Western Kansas, known for its meatpacking plants, is also seeing growth in other agricultural areas, not to mention wind power and the oil and gas industries.
Local dairy farmers try to lure new workers with decent salaries and benefits, but they find no takers, said Renaldo Mesa, who has served as president of the local chamber of commerce and as Garden City’s mayor. “There’s a lot of jobs out here,” Mesa said, “especially out in western Kansas, that average Americans just will not take.”
Many local businesses rely on immigrant labor. Immigrants already make up a fifth of the population of Garden City; nearly half the city is Hispanic. There are local festivals for Mexico’s independence day and the Vietnamese new year.
As a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives, Mesa backed a proposal this year designed to make it easier for illegal immigrants to keep their jobs. It would allow the state to ask the federal government for leniency for longtime residents who work in Kansas if those immigrants face deportation.
He says it is a step that will help spur growth in agriculture, a major focus of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. “That’s what we do out here in Kansas,” Mesa said. “In order to do that, you’ve got to have the workforce.”
Although they are overshadowed by state efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, business groups are working in several state capitols to help undocumented workers and, in the process, make it easier for businesses to hire immigrants legally. But many of those efforts, like the one in Kansas, are testing new political and legal ground.
“It is all new,” said Tamar Jacoby, the head of the business coalition Immigration Works USA, which is backing the Kansas measure and similar immigrant-friendly proposals in other states. “But the same thing is driving it everywhere, and it’s not surprising. It’s the tightening enforcement noose. More and more farmers — and other employers too, but farmers especially — are having trouble finding the workers they need to keep their businesses open.”
The frustration from farmers is cropping up in states that have little else in common.
Georgia last year passed a law to discourage illegal immigrants from settling there. But the state’s agriculture commissioner has actively pushed Congress to overhaul the nation’s guest worker programs so cantaloupe and cucumber farmers can hire undocumented workers legally to pick their crops.
Vermont lawmakers now appear to be heading down a path toward letting unauthorized immigrants get driver’s licenses. The change would especially benefit immigrant workers on dairy farms, who can seldom leave their farms to buy food, see doctors or attend church.
As part of a larger immigration package, the Utah legislature has called for the state to set up its own guest worker program starting in 2013. Similar bills were introduced this year in New Mexico and California. But both Vermont and Georgia rejected that approach. Current federal law does not allow for separate state guest worker programs; Utah has asked for federal permission to allow its program to take effect.
The variety of approaches to the same problem shows that there is no clear or easy option for states to take on what is essentially a federal issue.
After a seven-month study, Georgia’s agriculture department concluded just that. “The solution to the labor issues facing Georgia producers rests in the hand of the federal government,” the department wrote in a January report. “Only the federal government can make (H-2A, the agricultural guest worker program) useful for farmers. It is yet to be seen if H-2A can be rebranded to fulfill the needs of 21st century agriculture, but reforming the archaic program must be a top priority.”