EVANSVILLE, Ind., Sept. 19 (UPI) -- The farming economy in the United States is at the mercy of a quickly shrinking pool of foreign -- often undocumented -- labor.
Researchers estimate at least half of America's farmworkers are in the country without authorization. And with increased security at the border and more deportations of undocumented immigrants in the country's interior, those laborers are disappearing.
The situation is nearing a critical stage, farm industry leaders say. Fruit and vegetable farms need replacement workers, or they will cease to function.
"We have a situation where we need laborers, and we don't have the labor we need," said Will Rodger, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau. "Without workers, it is not economically feasible to grow the food at all."
Many farmers are trying to replace the dwindling undocumented workers with legal ones. But that can be difficult, Rodger said.
Not enough visas
The United States grants few visas to unskilled laborers who wish to permanently immigrate. And the only option for hiring seasonal migrant workers is to use the U.S. Department of Labor's temporary agricultural workers program called H-2A.
That program does not produce the number of migrants workers U.S. farms need, Rodger said.
"What's happening is the law has not kept up with the reality of our labor needs," Rodger said. "We just don't have the number of visas we need ... to put the supply and demand back in balance."
Otherwise, America will soon be incapable of producing most fruits and vegetables, he said.
Unlike cash crops, like corn and soybeans -- which can be harvested with machines -- most fruits and vegetables require human workers to determine when they are ripe enough and to pick them by hand to avoid bruising.
U.S. citizens used to do that work. But around the 1980s the number of Americans turning up to do farm work began declining.
In 1990, 42 percent of farmworkers were citizens, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor. By 1995, that number dropped to 32 percent.
"About 30 years ago, we had to start using migrant labor," said Brian Garwood, the owner of Garwood Orchards, a fruit farm in northern Indiana that's been in the Garwood family for six generations. "It started getting difficult to find local people willing to do the back-breaking, sweaty work of harvesting."
As American workers disappeared, migrants and immigrants from Mexico and Central America turned up to take their place. Some of them had visas, Garwood said. Most did not.
"We asked people for ID," Garwood said. "They could be fake, but you don't know for sure, and you're not the police."
Like the American workers before them, the stream of Latinos turning up at Garwood's farm began to decline about a decade ago. And in the last couple of years, it essentially stopped.
To get labor now, Garwood must use the H-2A program.
"It works to some degree," he said. "But it's expensive."
System rife with abuse
To qualify for the program, farmers must prove that they cannot hire U.S. workers to fill their jobs. They then apply for a predetermined number of visas. Once awarded, the farmer must hire his or her workers in Mexico, or another Latin American country, before the government will issue those visas.
Since many farmers do not speak Spanish or know how to locate labor in Latin America, they hire private companies in Mexico to recruit their workers. This process is rife with corruption and abuse, said Baldemar Velasquez, the president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union for migrant workers in North Carolina.
"The visas are available at the American consulate in Mexico," Velasquez said. "So the farmer has to hire a recruiting company in Mexico. These recruiting companies in Mexico are where the abuse starts."
Recruiters often target remote, impoverished areas, where people have few options for work. They then demand workers pay them extra -- sometimes three to four times the legitimate fees, Velasquez said.
"The more desperate you are, the more you're willing to do to get the visa," Velasquez said. "And the more money the recruiter can extort."
But even with the fees and the bribes, an H-2A visa is still a great opportunity for Hispanic workers.
"We earn a lot of money here," said a migrant worker in southern Indiana, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He stood in a bodega Saturday afternoon with about a dozen other migrant workers waiting to cash their paychecks. "One American dollar is worth 18 pesos in Mexico."
The other men nodded in strong agreement.
There are farming jobs in Mexico, the man added.
"But the work here is much less laborious," he said, speaking in Spanish.
The men, most in their teens and early 20s, were visibly nervous speaking with a UPI reporter, and they grew especially quiet when asked about what they had to do to get their visas.
"It was expensive," one man finally said, his eyes fixed on the floor.
The problems with the H-2A program don't end there, Rodger said.
The program is slow to grant visas, and workers are often delayed. That happened at Garwood's farm this spring. Garwood used the program to hire 30 people from Guatemala. Days before they were due to arrive, he was told they would be four weeks late.
"That would have put us into bankruptcy," Garwood said.
Garwood immediately called his federal representatives, who contacted the program leaders on his behalf. Together, they were able to muscle Garwood's workers' paperwork through and get them to Indiana on time.
Not all farmers are so lucky.
Reform bill proposed
The entire program needs major overhaul, Rodger said. To accomplish it, the group has thrown its weight behind a bill proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., which would replace H-2A program with one that promises less wait time, more visas and freer movement of agricultural workers across the border. It would also open up temporary visas for non-seasonal farm work, such as dairy and livestock, which is exempt from the H-2A program.
"The bill incorporates many of the comments and concerns I have heard from the agriculture community," Goodlatte said in a statement. "The agricultural community has waited far too long for a workable guest worker program and it's past time to enact a solution."
The bill was introduced in July and it is being reviewed by several committees. It's unclear if it will make it out of committee.
"We're going to do everything we can to get it passed," said Paul Schlege, the American Farm Bureau's director of public policy. "It's not perfect, but on a whole this is a much better program. And there is no question of the need in agriculture for a solution."
If the government does not pass some kind of immigration reform for agricultural workers, it is likely American farms will begin closing down in the coming years, Rodger said. As that happens, the United States will begin importing more of its fruits and vegetables from Mexico and Central America.
"We can import workers, or we can import food," Rodger said. "It's really that simple."