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As he hears tales of the plight of North Coast vineyard workers, Carlos Falcon can relate to their struggles as they seek a toehold into the middle class.

Falcon, the new North Bay organizing coordinator for the United Farm Workers, can easily rattle off the obstacles his members face. There are the ones who go without cellphones in the winter months to save money when work has dried up. There are others who have to double up with family to afford the ever-escalating rents in Wine Country. One hasn’t seen his family in about 15 years because he entered the country illegally and fears he would never be able to return if he visited Mexico.

“When you look at the day to day, it’s still a struggle for some of the families,” Falcon said. “Whether it’s work or leisure, they’re limited.”

The issue is personal for Falcon. He was born in Mexico and came to Modesto with his family at the age of 5. He was able to get legal resident status in the late 1990s and later attended junior college as he began working in the social justice field, with his eye on becoming a lawyer. His current step in that journey is to help boost the fortunes of local farmworkers, especially the undocumented.

“There is stability with being legal here in this country. You’re able to flourish and your family as well,” said Falcon, 29.

Falcon’s tale is one part of the overall saga of how immigration plays out in the North Coast wine industry, where the increasingly limited supply of workers has driven up wages and raised concerns over the future of the workforce that picks the area’s most profitable crop. It also has brought both labor advocates and growers together to call on Congress to resolve the immigration issue and allow those who are undocumented to work legally in the United States. Congress has so far not heeded as House Republicans have balked at any proposal that provides a pathway for citizenship.

President Barack Obama tried to force the issue in his executive order issued last month. Farmworkers weren’t specifically addressed in the executive order and it did nothing to change agriculture work visas for migrants, also known as H-2A visas.

The order would provide relief for about 4 million of the nation’s estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants by deferring their deportation proceedings and extending certain work permits to three years. Those who would benefit primarily are youths who came into the country before they turned 16 and parents who have lived in the United States for five years and whose children are legal residents, at a minimum.

The United Farm Workers has estimated that the Obama order would benefit 250,000 farmworkers, and at least 125,000 in California. At least half and possibly more of the nation’s approximately 2.3 million farmworkers are undocumented, according to federal and other estimates.

“It’s a good first step, but much more is needed because many farmworkers are not covered and there is no pathway to be a U.S. citizen,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Would like to see resolution

The North Coast wine industry would like to see a full resolution to the issue, as it has been increasingly hard for local vintners and growers to find workers in recent years.

For example, Enrique Castillo, owner of Enrique Vineyard Management in Sonoma, said his 25-person crew was stretched during this year’s harvest and that he could have used 15 more workers. Late in the season, his crews were pulling double duty, picking at night in one location and then during the early morning at another spot. At times, he had to turn down work or pay overtime for shifts that could extend as much as 14 hours.

During harvest, Castillo pays $25 an hour. He has taken steps to keep his workers employed throughout the year with chores such as leafing, replanting of vineyards and other vine maintenance — a tactic that is common in the industry to retain workers by keeping them busy until next year’s harvest. Pay for that work can drop to a minimum of $12 an hour, Castillo said. The jobs do not come with health benefits.

The wages make it hard to live in the area compared with other agricultural regions such as the Central Valley. According to the state Employment Development Department, the median 2014 hourly wage for farmworkers and laborers in Sonoma County was $10.05, with a median annual salary of $20,896. In Napa County, it is $11.21 per hour with a median annual salary of $23,325.

Castillo attributes the labor scarcity to a lack of workers coming from Mexico and undocumented workers who have been deported. He came from Mexico to the United States at age 16 in the early 1980s. “I don’t see people coming like years ago,” Castillo said.

Castillo’s observations are likely correct. Almost 70 percent of farmworkers come from Mexico, according to the National Agricultural Worker Survey. But those workers have been decreasing as job growth in rural Mexico has swung less toward agriculture and more toward services and manufacturing, according to J. Edward Taylor, an agricultural and resource economics professor at UC Davis. He estimates that the supply of agricultural workers from rural Mexico is falling at a rate of 11,200 workers per year.

That also has combined with a lower birthrate and better educational opportunities for young people, mirroring trends that occurred in this country in the last century.

“The new fact of life we are facing is a diminishing workforce from rural Mexico and that isn’t going to change,” Taylor said.

Others have noted that it is more difficult to cross the border in recent years and many have given up trying, but Taylor has found this has had much less effect than demographic trends.

Some of the ebb of the workforce can be made up through increased mechanization, which is already happening in the area. But those machines don’t operate as well on hillsides or in the rain, and some winemakers prefer hand-picked grapes because the fruit will not bruise as easily.

H-2A program costly, risky

While other parts of the country utilize the H-2A visas, which allows growers and farmers to bring in foreign temporary workers and is not subject to a limit, it is a non-factor in California vineyards. Farmworker Justice conducted an analysis of the program that found abuses to guest workers and concluded it drives down wages of U.S. workers, similar to the problems of those in the Bracero program that operated from 1942 to 1964.

California growers have found the H-2A program cumbersome and expensive while exposing them to potential liabilities, said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. Growers in other states have utilized the program much more widely to bring in workers.

“Where state agencies are inclined to try to make the program work, it has been more successful,” he said. “Where the attitude is not so favorable to guest-worker programs, it tends to be less successful.”

The industry is sensitive to allegations it hires undocumented workers. The Napa Valley Grapegrowers put out a release earlier this year entitled “Busting Myths About Napa Valley’s Farmworkers.” One of the “myths” was that most Napa Valley farmworkers were illegal immigrants. Instead, the group argued that the “workforce is well-established” and “increasingly integrated into the overall community.” It also noted many migrant workers now hold leadership positions at viticulture companies or own them outright. The group declined comment for this story. A 2012 study by the Migration Policy Institute estimated between 10,000 and 11,000 undocumented residents lived in Napa County between 2006 and 2008, or about 8 percent of the population.

Aguirre said he does not refer to such workers as undocumented, as field workers must be able to prove their residency status before they are hired. However, he acknowledged that some may submit invalid documents and it is difficult for growers to determine if they are legitimate. Growers open themselves up to discrimination claims if they make an error in denying employment to an applicant, he noted.

“If the document appears to be valid, you need to accept them,” he said.

Christopher Kerosky, a local immigration lawyer who has represented both workers and employers, said the “best-known secret” is that undocumented workers are employed in the local industry, which he estimated was well more than 50 percent. “All of these agriculture industries wouldn’t run without undocumented labor,” he said.

Typically, the employers follow the requirements of federal law through employment verification, spelled out on an I-9 Department of Homeland Security form, requiring documentation such as a driver’s license and a Social Security card. “They are adhering to the law ... in many of these cases the worker doesn’t have valid documents,” he said.

Some local employers have been audited by the Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), and if the worker’s permits cannot be verified, the employee is terminated, Kerosky said.

Deportations under the Obama administration reached a record high in 2013 of 438,421, according to the Pew Research Center, but federal enforcement has not targeted California vineyards for raids. Instead, employers face different types of government oversight. ICE can audit employee records, resulting in termination for workers who can’t prove their legal status. The Social Security Administration can review employees’ names and their Social Security numbers, notifying employers of mismatches. That scenario could also lead to termination.

Legislative solution eyed

Labor and immigrant activists and employers have agreed that the solution must be resolved legislatively. A Senate-passed immigration bill in 2013 would provide a pathway for earned legalization for certain agricultural workers and their families, while undocumented farmworkers and recent guest workers would have to complete a more elaborate two-step process. It also would replace the H-2A program, allowing for two new types of visas: one for contract-based work and another for at-will employment. But the House did not take action on the bill this past legislative session.

Taylor of UC Davis said legislation could help in the short term, especially under a new migrant worker visa program, but employers will face a new environment with fewer available workers. This, in turn, will likely fuel the trend toward more mechanization in the vineyards, which will likely require more highly-trained workers, he said.

“In the medium to the long run, the answer is to bring new technology to produce more crops with fewer workers,” Taylor said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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