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Updated Apr 22, 2013 - 7:43 am

Arizona farmers push for new guest worker program

YUMA, Arizona -- As lawmakers work on comprehensive immigration reform, overhauling the nation's guest worker program ranks as the top priority for Arizona farmers.

In cities like Yuma, where agriculture drives the local economy, having a reliable source of labor is crucial for farm owners, and the consumers who purchase the fruits and vegetables produced in the area.

From November through March, when farming conditions are just right, Yuma alone accounts for 75 percent of the major vegetable commodities for both the U.S. and Canada.

"We've got green leaf lettuce that's going to be used in the food service industry. Chicken sandwiches and thing like that," said John Boelts, a Yuma farmer whose fields are filled with 15,000 acres worth of lettuce.

On Boelts' farms, the work is done by immigrants. Some are naturalized citizens who live in the country, but others reside in Mexico, and cross the border every morning well before the sun comes up.

"They got up at around midnight. It's a tough life, and they might not get back home until seven or eight o'clock at night," said Boelts.

The job is grueling. Most of the day, workers are hunched over, harvesting hundreds of rows of lettuce. It's hard labor that most Americans simply don't want to do. "We just don't see the drive for today's youth to come fill those jobs," said Kevin Rogers, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau.

Even though some workers get paid $10-$20 an hour, according to Rogers, the job doesn't appeal to the average citizen. It's why immigrants make up about 80 percent of their workforce, but that number has been shrinking thanks to a growing labor shortage.

"Probably a dozen times over the last couple of years there's been times when there just isn't enough labor to get things done," said Boelts.

In theory, Boelts should have no problem getting extra help. A federal program called H2A allows him to hire as many temporary foreign workers as he needs. "But working with the Department of Labor is horrendous," said Boelts.

It's a common complaint from farmers across the country, who say the H2A program doesn't fit their needs, particularly when demand is high.

"It can take seven, eight, nine months sometimes a year to get a person to come across with the H2A program that's there," said Rogers. "It hasn't helped our dairy industry and some of the nursery folks who need year round help."

Over the past few years, Rogers has spent time with lawmakers in Washington, giving insight into what farmers would need in an immigration overhaul package. If they pass a new bill, introduced by the bipartisan Gang of Eight last week, it will be easier for farmers to bring in foreign labor.

"The end beneficiary is the American consumer who gets to buy reasonable priced food produced by people here in this country the way that Americans want their food produced," said Boelts.

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