By Annie Sciacca
As food industry businesses — from restaurants to farms to food production — struggle to find workers in the Bay Area, President Donald Trump’s actions on immigration policy could cut their workforce even more.
Trump signed executive orders Wednesday directing the construction of a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, increasing the number of immigration officers who carry out deportations and blocking federal grant funding to sanctuary cities.
The orders, which also outline new criteria that could make a larger number of undocumented immigrants priorities for deportation, have left some wondering who will provide the labor that goes into producing our food.
Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce, a farm in Watsonville, said a shortage of workers — fueled by increased deportations of immigrants in the past few years — has prompted him to scale back his farm operations.
“We’ve definitely felt it big-time,” Schirmer said. “We have a huge demand for our product. … But we don’t have the labor supply to keep up.”
He has had to cut back the farm from 42 acres to 32 acres to make the operations more manageable with his workforce.
While the farm sees demand for its products all over the country, Schirmer said it’s “easier to scale back and go to our core customers instead of expanding and expanding.”
Besides the hit to his business, Schirmer and his employees worry about how the new administration’s immigration policies will impact families in their community.
“People are scared,” said Jose Bamarillo, who works at Dirty Girl Produce and lives in Santa Cruz. “I don’t see a lot of legal people coming here and working minimum wage sun up to sun down.”
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He worries that farms will start to close if the workforce is cut.
“People are a little concerned; there is some anxiety,” said Bryan Little, the director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, regarding how farmers view Trump’s latest immigration actions.
According to a report from the Pew Research Center, unauthorized immigrants comprise 20 percent of U.S. crop production, 19 percent of “support activities” for agriculture and forestry, 18 percent of animal slaughtering and processing, 16 percent of bakery jobs and 11 percent of jobs at eating and drinking places and specialty food stores. “Legal” immigrants made up a similar percentage of the workforce in those industries.
In the Bay Area, those jobs are especially significant. According to the Greenbelt Alliance, a group that advocates for conserving natural and agricultural land in the Bay Area, farms and ranches, make up 64 percent of the region’s 3.6 million acres of open space.
Little said farmers and other employers do process I-9 forms, which are used for verifying identity and employment authorization in the United States, but under anti-discrimination rules, they cannot demand particular documents for identification or demand to see documents before extending an offer of employment.
They are also able to use H-2A visas, part of a guest worker program that allows employers to secure visas for foreign workers if they cannot find enough domestic workers for the job. The number of H-2A visas has increased over the years as labor has been more in demand, the Farm Bureau said, but the program remains controversial as farmers say it is expensive and takes too long, and some worker advocates criticize it for tying workers to a single employer.
“President Trump is demonizing immigrants and blaming them for ills in this country for which they’re not responsible and not offering constructive policy changes,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of nonprofit organization Farmworker Justice. “The large majority of farmworkers are immigrants. They are contributing to our economy by harvesting vegetables, working in dairies, tending to livestock.”
Restaurants and other food industry businesses could also be impacted. Restaurants in the Bay Area have closed at a fast clip recently, with many citing the difficulty in hiring workers as part of the reason.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit organization that advocates for restaurant workers, penned an open letter to Trump in November, urging him to “speak out to alleviate the fear of deportation or other harassment of immigrant workers in our industry” and to “choose a plan for an achievable path to citizenship for all workers over deportation.”
As one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States, the letter said the restaurant industry continues to expand while facing the “absolute worst labor shortage in recent memory.“
Several Bay Area restaurants, including Cosecha and chef Daniel Patterson’s Plum Bar and Locol in Oakland, among others, have joined a list of “sanctuary restaurants.” The movement is a joint effort from ROC United and Presente.org, and urges restaurants to not allow discrimination in their establishments against people based on immigrant or refugee status, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The effort also encourages restaurants to participate in a “peer network” to exchange ideas for protecting targeted workers.
The group has also issued a “know your rights” document for employers and workers to understand what they can do in the event of a raid or other immigration enforcement action.
Many in the restaurant and agriculture industry have called for comprehensive immigration reform that provides paths to citizenship for immigrants working in the United States, as well as a streamlined process for allowing industries like the agriculture and food business to get the workers they need.
“President Trump is doing what he said he was going to do, but he also said he would put doors in the wall to allow people to work in a legitimate way, “ said Little, of the California Farm Bureau. “We think working in our industry is a legitimate reason, and we view our role as helping the president figure out how to make those doors.”
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This article was originally published by the East Bay Times.