WASHINGTON — Walk the aisles of any neighborhood grocery store today and you're as likely to find tomatoes picked in Sinaloa, Mexico, as Central California or oranges from São Paulo, Brazil, as Bradenton, Fla.
Farmers across the country warn that shoppers will find even more imported food on their store shelves if Congress fails to pass immigration legislation that would guarantee them enough workers to milk their cows and harvest their fruits and vegetables.
"The bottom line is people need to decide whether they'd rather import their labor or import their food," said Randall Patterson, a China Grove, N.C., farmer who grows strawberries, cucumbers and watermelons among his crops.
The 52-year-old third-generation farmer employs about 140 foreign-born workers on his 1,200-acre farm legally through a federal system similar to the one a bipartisan team of senators want to overhaul and streamline.
But crops are being left to rot in fields from Florida to California and Washington state because farmers can't find enough workers willing to pick their crops. And many of their former workers no longer show up because they fear being stopped by police on their way to the fields and deported.
Many already have been. Of an estimated 2 million agriculture workers, according to United Farm Workers of America, some 70 percent are thought by union and agriculture officials to be working here illegally.
Addressing the agriculture labor shortages has been one of the less controversial issues in the immigration debate taking place on Capitol Hill. Many Republicans and Democrats agree that the agriculture industry is suffering because of a broken immigration system.
But resolving the matter for U.S. farmers has been complicated because of opposition from those on the far ends of the debate. Many on the right oppose providing any legal path for those here illegally, and many on the left argue that the agriculture component must be addressed only as part of a comprehensive package.
A bipartisan proposal in the Senate that would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally would allow quicker legalization for agriculture workers.
They would be granted a special "blue card" that provides them legal status. After five years (versus at least 10 years for most other people here illegally), agriculture workers could apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship. The bill also calls for guest worker visas to be issued by the U.S. Agriculture Department, rather than the Department of Labor, to ensure a sufficient work force.
Jobs for Americans?__lt__/h3__gt__
The main arguments against legalizing immigrant agriculture workers is that those jobs ought to be held by Americans rather than people who broke the country's immigration laws, and that Americans would do farm work if growers paid a fair wage.
One of the most outspoken opponents of the bipartisan Senate plan, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., raised those points at a recent Senate hearing, where he cited the April jobs report that showed millions remained unemployed and only 88,000 jobs being created.
"I'm also dubious about the idea that there are jobs Americans won't do," Sessions said. "I worked construction in the Alabama sun, hauling lumber and stuff. I know Americans do that every single day, tough work that's done every day. Where I was raised we were told to respect people who did hard work and not to say it's a job an American won't do. Any honorable labor is good."
Yet there are very few U.S.-born workers toiling in the fields.
The Senate plan would cap the number of guest worker agriculture visas at 112,333 a year. A House proposal introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would cap the number of guest worker visas at 500,000.
While the secretary of agriculture has the authority to raise or lower the cap based on market demands, growers such as Patterson worry that there is a cap at all.
"How do they know after writing all that reform how many workers I'm going to need at my farm?" he asked. "Einstein couldn't figure that out."
It's not just about importing food, but also exporting farmers, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, which represents growers. He estimates that some 50 to 60 farmers from Central California have moved at least parts of their operations to Mexico.