By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
FRESNO, Calif. -- To listen to right-wing talk radio or the fear-mongers on cable TV, you would think that the only people upset by the unraveling of immigration reform are open-border liberals or left-leaning Latino activists.
Nope. Farmers and ranchers are as conservative as they come. Yet right about now, they're angry enough to spit nails.
American agribusiness is fighting off foreign competition from Asia and Latin America while losing workers to other industries. Someone who grows peaches in Central California might pay workers about $7 per hour, while construction firms often pay twice that.
The reason for the disparity is wrapped up in how much people are willing to pay for what they consume. A lot of Californians won't think twice about forking over a million dollars for a house, but they'll balk at the price of an apple, especially when they have the option of going to another store where the apples are cheaper because they come from China.
And given that California agribusiness generates more than $30 billion annually, the labor shortage is a concern for everyone in the state -- whether they realize it or not.
That point is not lost on the community leaders associated with the Kenneth L. Maddy Institute at California State University, Fresno. The institute, named after a former state senator who cast a long shadow on local and state politics, sets out to train new leaders and find creative solutions to public policy issues.
We need both. So when the institute invited me to my hometown to participate in a forum on immigration reform, I gladly accepted.
The economy of the Central Valley hums in the summer months and then suffers a downturn in winter. It's all tied to the harvest. A grape grower has a good year, and he buys himself a new pickup truck. The person who sold it to him then has money to afford private school tuition for his daughter. And then the school has enough money to add a new wing. And then the construction company that gets the contract to build it lures away workers from the farmer who set the whole thing in motion.
Now what is the farmer supposed to do? Think the average American college student wants to do those jobs? As one of the other forum participants put it: "Of course no one wants their kids to become farm workers. Not even farm workers want their kids to become farm workers."
Some farmers in Colorado and Idaho have turned to prison inmates to fill the void. It's a cute stunt but not a long-term solution.
So farm groups pressed Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. They were especially interested in the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2006, or AgJobs, which would have created a new guest worker program and granted legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who work in agriculture.
Instead, farmers watched Republicans push racist hot buttons over how we shouldn't have to "press one for English," and how any illegal immigrant who gets legal status would go on welfare. Then they watched Democrats attack the guest worker plan in order to pander to organized labor desperate to protect union members from having to compete with foreign laborers. Meanwhile, pundits in Washington and New York showed their ignorance. The city folk suggested that farmers use machines to pick crops, but farmers maintain that could bruise fruits and vegetables and destroy their profit margin. Try picking blueberries with a machine -- you'll wind up with puree. Do it with strawberries and, before you know it, you'll have jam.
Then there's the money. Congress' failure to pass immigration reform is especially galling since many in agriculture have forked over millions in campaign contributions to officeholders from both parties. And when farmers asked for one thing in return, they got the runaround. They also got insulted; the anti-reform lobby painted them as greedy growers hungry for more illegal immigrants to exploit.
Not true, farmers say. They want a legal work force, they insist, but Congress won't even create a tamperproof ID card so that employers can be sure that their workers are legal. They say they are running out of options. And they've already run out of patience.
They admit that as many as 90 percent of agricultural workers are illegal immigrants. But they wonder, just where are the Americans who are supposedly desperate to have these jobs?
I bet at least some of them are trying different supermarkets, shopping around for the best price for a piece of fruit.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .