Finding Effects of Employer Sanctions

It’s been a little more than three months since Arizona ’s employer sanctions law took effect. Businesses can lose their license if they knowingly hire illegal immigrants. But  even before the law went into effect, some speculated that companies, especially in the agricultural and hotel service industry, would leave Arizona .  But as KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer reports it’s still hard to nail down the effects of the law.

Another day slowly closes as the sun sets on the near 70 acre Agua Linda Farm, south of Tucson.

The Agua Linda Farm has all the things you’d expect to see on a farm: sheep, pigs, chickens…and a border patrol checkpoint a few hundred feet from the lettuce and sugar snap peas.

“You know, in the past we would use migrant workers, but now we can’t because we have a border patrol checkpoint installation about 1200 feet from us,” says Stewart Loew, who owns Agua Linda Farms. “At this point it’s ‘Have some water, here’s a sandwich and good luck.’”

Loew says the temporary checkpoint has sat near his land for 10 years, stopping traffic heading north from Nogales on Interstate 19.  It’s a popular route for migrant workers.  Loew says each year car-fulls of people head back to Mexico after Thanksgiving along I-19.

But he says this year was different.

“This year it literally looked like the dust bowl,” he says. “They were packing everything they had and moving south.”

Loew’s farm sits in the shadow of tall, plains-colored mountains.  His farm-house is made of red brick, and his crops are penned-in by shade trees, and wooden fences.

It’s a direct to consumer operation, relying on customers to buy a share of his crops.  He offers a petting zoo, and tours creating what he calls “agro-entertainment.”

And though Loew’s operation is smaller, the effects of employer sanctions are obvious.

“Somebody’s doing a good job because I’ve received three calls in the past week and a half, with agencies saying ‘We’re verifiers, we can get you licensed as an employer and do the leg work for you,’” he says.

“I think a lot of the growers in the last few years have contracted out their harvesting and packing to what are known as labor contractors,” explains Doug Schaefer, a crop buyer and seller (like a stock broker for produce.)

He also headed the Arizona Vegetable Grower’s Association a few years ago.

He says labor middlemen like those who contacted Stewart Loew, take the responsibility of verification away from the farmer. But they also increase competition.

“There’s no real signed contract between any of these people. So on any given day if one farmer’s paying so much a box for that crew, and then another guy needs something harvested right away, he’s gonna offer more money.  Well that crew’s going to go where ever the money is,” Schaefer says.

Even with these shifts in practice, the effects of the employer sanctions law are difficult to recognize.

“It’s going to take a long time to quantify especially because of this housing thing happening at the same time…and is really making it a murky issue,” says Dawn McLaren,  an economist for Arizona State University .

She says the subprime loan debacle and other economic problems have made it hard to determine how the economy will act.

And, she says, regulation and government action, especially in terms of food subsidies, may have unknown side effects.

“If you put a regulation in place to try to foil the market, the market will find a way around it somehow,” McLaren says. “And it may be in a good way, and it may be in a bad way.”

Though Arizona businesses are subject to more scrutiny in their hiring, the produce market still needs supply.

“Companies and large corporations are growing more labor intensive crops in Mexico ,” says Ed Hermes with the Arizona department of agriculture.

It’s hasn’t seen mass exodus of Arizona employers, but corporate farms are shifting their production lines to other states, or Mexico .  Family farms are just trying to weather the storm.

“A lot farmers, they’ve grown lettuce their whole lives, and that’s what they’re going to grow. It’ll take a year or two of people having to plow in half their crop because they can’t get it picked to then say either ‘I’m getting out of the business’ or ‘I’m gonna have to try to get creative here to keep my family farm afloat,’” Hermes says, adding it’s one of the most challenging times for farmers in recent memory.

But crop prices are still stable.

Ultimately, he says the federal government needs to take action, instead of states devising a patchwork of solutions.

At Stewart Loew’s Agua Linda Farms, the answer is simple.

“If you break up the food system and have a smaller farm, like my farm, it’s a lot more pleasant work,” he says, advocating for the current system of farming needing to end.

Loew allows his customers to pick some of the harvest themselves, that’s one of the benefits of his smaller operation.  But that may not work in a 3,000 acre field of lettuce.

Bottom line, Loew says: farms need workers.

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