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Illegal immigration enforcement hurting farm labor?

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Several states around the nation have enacted laws to crack down on illegal immigration, but farmers left with empty fields are becoming the victims of unintended consequences. And experts say the labor shortage could shrink Georgia's economy by nearly $400 million.

Despite unemployment and a $10.48 hourly rate, which is above $3 more than minimum wage, grower Curtis Rowley can't find enough local workers.

"It would be really nice to walk into town and say we need 15, 20 guys," said Rowley of Cherry Hill Farms. "We end up spending a lot more money because it costs money to bring people from Mexico.

Rowley participates in the federal program called H-2A, which allows foreign workers to enter the United States to make up for the lack of able and willing American workers. However, the H-2A program is not cheap.

To qualify for the program, Rowley had to prove he tried to hire American workers, using advertisements in four local states. He also has to obtain the visas for his workers and cover their transportation and housing. Taking that all into account, Rowley's labor costs have increased by nearly 50 percent.

"You are planning four to six months in advance, and not knowing what Mother Nature is going to give you," Rowley said.

Men and women outside the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico stand in line for hours, hoping their number will be called for work.

"There is more opportunity to earn a better living," said one unidentified worker. "They pay a better wage."

Fewer than 5 percent of U.S. farms use the H-2A program, but the current system is still overloaded with requests.

I hope they can take a step back and learn the issues and want to really look at the big picture.

–Curtis Rowley

"Something clicked inside me that said, ‘The only way to make something work is if we educate people,' " Rowley said.

Rowley is planning to meet with as many legislators as he can to explain why the H-2A program is not working. He strongly supports the guest worker program in Utah, as does the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

"There's great value to immigrants as workers, as taxpayers, and one that is much over-looked, as consumers," said Wesley Smith of the Salt Lake Chamber.

Utah has immerged as a leader in immigration reform and will host a Mountain West Summit. Stakeholders from Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming will meet to discuss the value of immigrants in the U.S. A mayor from Georgia will also speak at the immigration summit to discuss their labor shortage and the impact of the state's new laws.

"I hope they can take a step back and learn the issues and want to really look at the big picture," Rowley said.

As a farmer, Rowley never expected to get caught up in politics, but the future of his farm now depends on immigration reform.


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Candice Madsen


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