New guidelines could cause farmworker shortage

New federal regulations aimed at making it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to keep jobs by requiring employers to fire workers who use false Social Security numbers could mean fewer hands in Jackson County fields this harvest.

Part of a 26-point plan, set to begin next month, employers will have to show they had either verified their workers' identities or fired them within 90 days of getting a letter from the government notifying them about Social Security numbers on their payroll that don't match the agency database.

With a large number of agricultural workers believed to be working in the Rogue Valley and elsewhere under bogus Social Security numbers, area ranchers and farmers worry that the new regulations could have a chilling effect on Oregon's $13 billion farm economy.

After years of resisting hiring limited English-speaking help, Central Point rancher Dalton Straus said in an interview Monday that he has come to rely on five immigrant-workers to help him run his 2,000-acre hay and cattle operation.

"Whether legal or illegal, they are a part of our family for as long as they've been with us," Straus said of his employees. He said being forced to fire any of them would be a "devastating" blow to his business, and could be a signal to him that it is time to retire.

"I cannot find local workers that would put in the hours and the hard work with the dedication, conscientiousness and honesty that they do," he said, adding that each of them presented him with legitimate-appearing immigration papers.

Ron Bjork of Eagle Point, president of the Jackson County Farm Bureau, said Straus is not alone. He said the new regulations will be "pretty tough" on many local farmers who could be forced to lay-off scores of already scarce farm laborers.

"The federal government is the one that caused this problem. They have got to get control of the borders," Bjork said. "They need to be the one to solve the problem (of illegal immigration) not put it on the backs of farmers or individual employers to solve."

It has been long been illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, but they may now face sanctions up to $10,000 if they do not investigate the discrepancy and follow the new rules.

After first proposing them last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security held off implementing the new rules, awaiting the outcome of the debate in Congress over a now-dead, White House-backed immigration overhaul, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement last week.

"We all know that a critical part of immigration enforcement is effective interior and worksite enforcement. The reason for that is because the magnet that brings most economic migrants into this country is work," Chertoff said. "And if we have worksite enforcement directed at illegal employment, we strike at that magnet."

In addition to workplace crackdowns, the Bush administration is also expanding the Border Patrol to 20,000 agents by 2009 and building more detention facilities for illegal immigrants.

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at

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