Dare I "subsidize" a peach?

Posted: Jun 06, 2006 12:06 AM

"Everybody has an opinion, although most people think food comes from Safeway," muses Ken Hajek. A dentist three days a week, Hajek offers me his opinion as a peach grower the other four days. We are talking as he stands near his white pickup on 25 acres in Lodi, where he grows peaches in an orchard tucked behind a house and a yard full of cars.

 Hajek had contacted me because he objected to my call for the Bush administration to get tougher on those who knowingly employ illegal immigrants.

 To start, Hajek said that he doesn't believe it is his job to serve as the employment police for the federal government. Nonetheless, he explains: "We are trying to comply. We are not 'winking and nodding.'"

 His labor contractor, Brad Goehring, who joins us, requires new hires to show two documents that demonstrate they can work legally. Still, he estimates that 40 percent of workers whom he hires may be illegal -- to judge by letters sent irregularly from the Social Security Administration long after harvest to alert employers that their employees' Social Security numbers don't match the worker.

 Hajek and Goehring tell me they want to follow the law, but they also need laws that ensure them access to cheap immigrant labor. Americans simply won't reliably do the work, they say.

 Goehring boasts that he is a fourth-generation grape grower whose German great-grandparents started as immigrant farm laborers.

 "Things just aren't going to stay the same as they were for your grandpa," responds Mark Krikorian of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration, when I phone him later. "Farmers have to face that the way autoworkers have had to face that," he said.

 And, "What they're saying is, let us have this labor on the terms of the 19th century." But the world has changed, so, "They can either adjust now, or they can get it rammed down their throats later."

 Krikorian has suggested that mechanization can replace cheap labor. Hajek shows me his watering system and the heavy metal pipe he moves himself -- he's 6-foot-8, by the way -- rather than hire others. He picks a green peach as he explains why machines could not do the job efficiently -- so, he says, I should not write that new technologies can do the work.

 If Washington passes a law that dries up the supply of immigrant labor, Hajek argues, China will take over the peach business, just as China already has made inroads into apple juice. If the government tried to deport all of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants -- not, I should say, that any Washington politician seriously argues that is even possible -- it would devastate California agriculture. And, "If the industry fails, it's not going to come back quick."

 Fine, I counter, but taxpayers have to pick up the bill for schools and health services for your cheap labor. The men argue that it is not their doing that the government provides health care and other welfare for those who come to America illegally. Hajek talks about all the businesses that benefit from his peach business. He does not talk about the cost that taxpayers shoulder.

 It doesn't help that illegal immigration is no longer confined to agriculture. Goehring notes that his business turns over workers far more quickly than it used to. He faults welfare -- for paying people not to work -- as well as the fact that growers now have to compete for immigrant labor with construction, trucking and landscaping contractors. As a result, the trade journal American/Western Fruit Grower reported in January, "The Central Valley in California alone saw a shortage of 70,000 to 80,000 workers to harvest tree fruit."

 Readers sometimes ask me why President Bush has pushed so hard for "earned citizenship" for illegal immigrants. I believe that Bush cares about immigrant families, who have lived in America for years and are otherwise law-abiding. Bush also cares about employers such as Hajek and Goehring.

 I think Americans were OK with subsidizing cheap labor when it was limited to farm work, but now that industrial and service employers have gotten into the act, Americans cannot afford the high cost of cheap labor.

 Vote. Yes, I know how uninspiring this primary seems to many Californians, but ignoring it is a big mistake. Primaries provide voters with a great opportunity -- a chance to choose the better person among like-minded candidates.

 Your choice for a down-ticket office today could be a front-runner for governor in the next election. Look at your ballot. You actually will find a couple of stellar candidates who need your support because they are not big names. Vote today for better leadership tomorrow.