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A Plant City potato, onion distributor will work with ICE, but most growers fear overregulation

An agricultural business that agrees to work closely with immigration officials is a rarity, farmers and others in the industry say.

Florida Potato & Onion, based in Plant City, took the step last week when it signed on as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement IMAGE member.

Companies in IMAGE — ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers — cross-check their employees' identification against government databases to ensure that the hires are legal to work in the United States. In return, ICE will limit or forgive fines that stem from hiring undocumented workers.

"You've got to jump through some hoops to get it all done, but it's a free program and we believe it's good for our business," company president Jim Studdiford said.

Florida Potato & Onion, a distributor of those foods, employs about 60 workers. The business became an IMAGE member last week during a signing ceremony in Tampa.

ICE officials said they couldn't say for certain how many IMAGE members are agriculturally based. None of the 13 IMAGE-certified businesses from the Panhandle to Naples deals in agriculture, unless you count Auburndale juice packager Cutrale Citrus Juices USA.

Among the others: TECO Energy, Avant Health Professionals, the Naples Hilton, the Tampa Banking Co. and the county commissions of Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.

An ICE spokeswoman couldn't explain why the list doesn't show more agricultural businesses or say whether growers are resistant to signing on.

Farmers and others have their own explanation. Ever-changing government regulations make them hesitant to join the program. So too is the nature of the industry, which employs seasonal pickers by the thousands for short periods. Some undocumented workers can slip through even after farmers have checked their status.

The Hillsborough County Farm Bureau's executive director says growers do their best to examine workers' Permanent Resident Cards (or green cards), but she said farmers aren't investigators and some workers can sneak by using forged cards.

"The farmers have always tried to be in compliance. It's just that they keep changing the rules," Judi Whitson said. "What they ask for today may not be what they ask for this week. We're just so overregulated."

Others say lapses are bound to happen when so many workers — in some cases thousands — are moving from one farm to the next during planting and harvesting seasons. It's hard to double-check everyone, and joining the IMAGE program invites more government scrutiny.

"I would expect not too many growers would participate in a program like this," said Gary Wishnatzki, chief executive officer of Plant City-based Wish Farms.

He says growers already go to lengths to ensure that their workers are documented. The ICE program, which is voluntary, opens the door to larger immigration questions.

Increased scrutiny and tougher state-based immigration policies, including those in Alabama and Georgia, are taking a toll on Florida growers.

A shortage of pickers last year made it difficult to harvest and get Wish Farms' berries to market on time, Wishnatzki said.

"If we don't have that influx of people coming in when we need them, then we can't get our berries to market," he said. "We're already seeing spot shortages. We need to find a solution to this problem, or in coming years there will be crisis."

One problem is that documented and undocumented workers are sometimes in the same family. Faced with increased scrutiny, some documented workers leave the country to shield their families.

Also, some documented workers worry that their status will be revoked under future immigration policies, so they look for work elsewhere. Ultimately, the growers pay the price for the tougher measures.

"I understand and agree that we're a land of laws, but we also need to figure out how to keep our economy growing and keep American growers in business," Wishnatzki said.

"The needs of agriculture need to be dealt with in a comprehensive way because Americans, or people who have been here more than a generation and consider themselves to be Americans, will not do this kind of work," he said.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

A Plant City potato, onion distributor will work with ICE, but most growers fear overregulation 10/04/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 4:30am]
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