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“Some of these workers go back to Mexico on a regular basis,” Olagaray said. When they travel, “they’re fearful of something happening to them. With amnesty, it’ll make them feel more comfortable. They’ll also feel that they’re part of society. And it will make it easier for employers as well.”
Olagaray said that if immigration isn’t resolved soon, labor shortages will become more pronounced. Last spring, he said he had trouble filling his usual crew to tend his grapevines during growing season, and other growers saw ripe crops languish in the fields.
Still, any policy effort may do little to solve the labor shortage, said Edward Taylor, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Davis.
Such shortages predate the recession. During boom times, contractors persuaded many workers in the fields to work in construction jobs, according to Taylor, who recently co-wrote a study that examined the decline in the number of farm workers from Mexico.
A key finding in Taylor’s study was that more immigrants were staying home to work on Mexico’s farms. They were taking advantage of a strengthening Mexican economy and a growing middle class.
As a result, American farmers are competing for a dwindling supply of workers.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers are well-aware that their industry is changing.
And although he agrees that a dwindling labor supply will cause problems farther down the line, he said Congress should still pass immigration reform that will allow farmers to hire legal farm workers.
“Within the next two decades, we’re going to have a problem: A domestic workforce will not want to work in the fields,” he said. “It’s going to be a problem. But that still doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix the problems that exist today.”