With President Bush’s signing last Friday of a sweeping new law requiring employers to fire most illegal immigrant workers or risk facing hefty fines, the California wine industry is bracing for what could be one of its gravest crises in memory.
“A lot of grapegrowers will go out of business. It’s very scary,” says one of the state’s leading winegrape growers, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is the parent agency of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which will enforce the new law set to go into effect 30 days after the President signed it, around September 10.
The law gives employers 90 days to resolve discrepancies between employee records and the Social Security Administration. At the end of that period, employees unable to resolve the discrepancies would have to be fired. Employers who do not comply risk up to $10,000 in fines.
It’s hard coming up with an exact number of people who work in California’s vineyards, much less how many are illegal, according to Karen Ross, the president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG). According to the grower who did not want to be quoted, 80% of seasonal workers, the field hands who do California’s pruning, training and harvesting, do not possess legal documentation. Gilbert Molina, who runs a farm labor contractor association whose membership represents 60,000 farm workers, says that, at a meeting of the California Farm Bureau Federation that took place on Monday, after the new law was signed, “I was told that 30% to 90% of the agricultural workers [in California] had mismatched Social Security numbers”—which would suggest illegality.
While Ross, at CAWG, predicts “a lot of pain” starting as early as this fall, she adds, “I’m not pushing the panic button yet.” That’s because mechanical harvesting, which requires fewer workers, is widespread in California vineyards. “But we still have an important sector, for quality reasons, that requires hand harvesting,” she adds. Growers already are seeing labor shortages, and Molina predicts that, as bad as things could get for employers in 2007, “Next year’s going to be a killer.”
If worse comes to worst, says the grower who did not want to be identified, here’s a likely timeline. “Say this gets on the Federal Registry [whereby it officially becomes law] by September 15. The letters [from Social Security identifying no-match employees] come to my mailbox by September 20. I’ve got 90 days to resolve everything, or I’m firing a whole lot of people.”
Andy Beckstoffer, a well-known NorthCoast grower, sums up the situation. “We employers are going to have to become policemen.”