SEATTLE -- Some Washington farmers are worried their work force is dwindling.
Most of the farmers rely on seasonal workers, and more than half of those workers in Washington are illegal immigrants. Some farmers say their once-loyal workers are staying in Mexico because of the dangers of crossing the border with the stronger enforcement of border laws.
Others say the immigrants who now live in the state permanently are leaving seasonal work to find year-round jobs.
Mark Ellis, a University of Washington geography professor, points to a similar concern for farmers: Once immigrants get offers of higher-paying or longer-term jobs, they will take them.
"We've seen upward mobility among immigrants," said Ellis. "Where do the farmers go then, if they can't rely on seasonal labor coming from the south?"
Not all farmers are seeing a decrease in the number of seasonal workers. Ellis said that's because of the struggling economy and a large number of people looking for work.
"People are desperate with high unemployment so you have a larger than normal floating pool," Ellis said. But "if the economy picks up and the flow from the south stays the same, that knocking on the door will stop."
Amy Sills, of Terry's Berries near Tacoma, is one farmer who hasn't been hit with a seasonal-worker shortage. She said she has more people than she can accommodate, which she attributes to being five minutes from the city.
But Ellis predicts that as fewer people cross the border, even farmers like Sills will have issues finding help.
"Their workers will age and their workers' kids will not want to do the same jobs as their parents," he said.
One Lower Yakima Valley farmer, who usually hires 20 to 25 workers from Mexico for his cherry and fruit farm every summer, said he found himself without help at the beginning of the season.
The farmer, who did not want to be identified, said his laborers attempted to cross the border three times and got caught each time. Finally, they called to say they were staying in Mexico.
Meanwhile, legal migration for seasonal work continues to face obstacles. Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, encourages farmers to bring workers from Mexico legally, but said it's a slow and difficult process.
Only 20 growers in the state bring legal seasonal workers through the federal guest-work program, or H-2A, according to Fazio. In that program, the farmer pays for visas and transportation. Those 20 usually bring over about 3,000 legal workers.
Andrej Suske runs a nursery in Redmond, Wash., and uses the H-2A program. This year he needed workers in early February, but did not get them until one month later after negotiating through government bureaucracies.
Suske said he paid more than $50,000 in recruitment and consulate fees and to transport, house and pay his workers. Farmers who hire undocumented workers don't have to deal with this cost and hassle, Fazio said.
"We just need a system for people to come into the country legally to do the jobs that Americans don't do," Fazio said. "And it's not that Americans are lazy, but no one wants a job where you work for six months a year, unless you're making $100,000."
Ellis said one effect of stronger border enforcement is a more permanent Hispanic population.
"If the men could not go home to see their families and kids, they brought them here because then that's just one crossing instead of the men going back and forth," Ellis said.
The 2010 census put the number of Hispanics and Latinos who live in Washington at 755,790. Ellis said the large majority represents U.S.-born and legal immigrants. There is probably an undercount of the unauthorized population, he said.
The state usually needs about 60,000 seasonal workers each year from June to October, Fazio said. "That's only five months and not long enough to attract workers," Fazio said.
Fazio said farmers have to find a way to make the work last all year; otherwise, their laborers might look for jobs in other industries, such as construction. "We can't compete with the construction industry because that's a seasonal job where people work 10 months, not five or six," Fazio said.
(Contact reporter Melissa Powell at email@example.com.)