Rep. Lee Zeldin met April 30 with members of the L.I. Farm Bureau, who pressed him on immigration reform and shortage of immigrant labor many growers depend on. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Immigration issues weighed heavily on the minds of L.I. Farm Bureau members who attended the organization’s annual “Breakfast with the Congressman” event at its Calverton office on Saturday.

It’s a perennial topic of discussion at the annual spring meeting because local farmers and growers rely heavily on foreign workers to plant, tend to and harvest their crops.

This year was different.

Instead of conversation about the bureaucratic difficulties they encounter with the H2A visa program — the federal program that allows a foreign national entry to the United States for seasonal agricultural work — Farm Bureau members told Rep. Lee Zeldin they are facing a severe labor shortage that’s jeopardizing their ability to expand — and even their ability to survive.

“If you go around the room, the overhwelming concern you’d hear is the shortage of labor, the lack of labor,” L.I. Farm Bureau president Karl Novak told the congressman, opening up comments from the gathering of about 20 local ag industry representatives. “And if you listen to any of the economists talk about the economy one of the biggest threats they see to economic growth is the labor shortage,” Novak said.

“We operate in the highest cost production area in the U.S. as far as agriculture is concerned. We’ve been talking about this for 20 years — a workable, streamlined guest worker program, immigration reform and one thing that’s becoming a concern and just made headlines this week, ICE raids and immigration enforcement,” Novak said.

“There’s a tremendous shortage of labor for low-skilled jobs,” said Novak, general manager at Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel. “We need immigration reform.”

L.I. Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter agreed. “The ag econommy is struggling at the moment — with the high cost of production, shortages of labor and competition from other parts of the US and the world — it’s a global economy.”

Carpenter said he has spoken with local farmers who say, “I would like to expand but I just don’t know what the future is.” The lack of a labor force is holding people back, he said.

“This uncertainty makes it so you just can’t plan,” said Doug Corwin of Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, who attended the meeting with his son Blake. “I’ve made a lot of phenomenal environmental investments,” he said. “I’ve got production investments for his future that I really should make,” he said, referring to his son. “But I don’t know if I should throw a million or two million dollars into it if I don’t know whether I’m going to have a labor force,” Corwin said.

“I’m not the only person,” said Corwin, who operates Long Island’s last remaining duck farm. “I’ve talked to people, colleagues all across the country, they’re in the same place. Do we plan on this or not because we just don’t know where we’re going to be able to go down the road if this is going to continue in this direction,” he said.

“I want you to be able to develop your business model, to grow to thrive and not worry about whether youre going to have the individuals to do the work,” Zeldin told the group.

“Our immigration system is jacked up and has to get fixed,” the congressman said.

Zeldin said in February, with the deadline set by President Donald Trump for the expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program a month away, it seemed like an immigration reform agreement in Congress was imminent. When the Supreme Court extended the deadline, Zeldin said, the chance for imminent Congressional action evaporated. The congressman said he does not expect any action by Congress on the complex and controversial immigration issues before the November midterm elections.

The Shirley Republican, who is seeking his third term of office in November, told Farm Bureau members they need not worry about “ICE raids.”

“You just don’t hear of raids where ICE is going around the East End of Long Island and just rounding up people who are here illegally but they’ve been here for 20 years, they work here. Those narratives — it just doesn’t happen around here,” Zeldin said.

“Their priority is is on MS13. It’s on people who have been deported and have returned, people who have been involved in human trafficking and the sex trafficking that’s going on, drug trafficking and other serious criminal offenses. That’s been their priority,” Zeldin said.

“If you get caught up in a raid and you don’t fit into any of those categories, there is almost a 100-percent chance — that’s the conservative estimate — that if you’re there at that time of the raid you’re living with the MS-13 member, or you’re living with that serious criminal.”

ICE in the New York City-Long Island region “seems to be very well led,” Zeldin said.

“As far as ICE raids go, I’ve had a chance to interact with ICE a lot and they’re great,” he said. “They are tough, disciplined, by-the-book, patriotic, freedom-loving Americans. I can’t tell who’s a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. They just all have a job — a mission — to do and they’re very sensitive to doing it correctly,” he said.

As for reports of undocumented workers being arrested by ICE who had DWI convictions several years old, Zeldin said there is very likely more to the story. People with DWI convictions often have longer rap sheets, he said.

“Those are great examples where there’s more to it. It’s not just an isolated incident,” Zeldin said. “The first time that you get charged with a DWI, if you plead guilty you don’t end up with a DWI on your record,” he said.

But according to lawyers for two undocumented men arrested by ICE this month — a Flanders resident and a Greenport resident— that’s exactly what happened to their clients. See prior stories, “Flanders man among at least eight on East End arrested in ICE’s six-day ‘Operation Keep Safe New York’ sweep” (April 18) and ICE arrests stoke fear on North Fork (April 27).

Farm Bureau president Novak expressed the concern that “a conflict between our governor and our president” may lead to farmers and growers “being casualties of war in the conflict between political ideologies.”

Zeldin said he does not see that happening. Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t seem to get under the president’s skin, he said. Trump seems to be “unfazed” by Cuomo, he said. The administration does not see him as a political threat in 2020, he said.

The congressman, a stalwart Trump supporter, appeared to break ranks with the president on the subject of border security.

The subject has “unfortunately … gotten caught up in a sound bite debate of build a wall verse don’t build a wall,” Zeldin said.

“If you look at our southern border,” he said, “we have the Huachuca mountains. Look at the size of these mountains. We already have a several-thousand-foot wall. There’s no need to build 30 feet on top of that,” Zeldin said.

“If you cross the Huachuca Mountains, there’s the home of the U.S. Army intelligence center and a border patrol post,” he said.

“South of Texas, you have the Rio Grande. We don’t need to build a 30-foot wall in the middle of the Rio Grande. There are parts of our border where we already have a wall, a physical structure,” Zeldin said.

“This is not as catchy as build a wall, don’t build a wall,” he said.

“We have to get past the sound bites. Yes, some areas need additional security. It might be a structure or additional technology,” he said.

“We also have to understand there are many different ways to come to our country,” Zeldin said. “Look at our ports. If they come through the door legally but at some point their status changes, that’s an issue as well.

Estimates put the proportion of undocumented residents who have overstayed their visas rather than crossed a border to enter the U.S. illegally, at anywhere from 40 to more than 60 percent.

“One thing that’s frustrating is the amount that sound bites get used.” Zeldin said Saturday. “And we end up passing over the substantive, productive conversation of what’s the actual solution.”

The congressman said he is a strong supporter of the guest worker programs that allow employers to bring foreign workers into the U.S. for seasonal work on temporary visas. The H2A program is for agricultural workers while the H2B program is for nonagricultural workers and is relied on quite extensively by the hospitality industry on the East End.

Zeldin said he is a cosponsor of a bill that would create a new H2C temporary visa program that would, among other things, create a three-year guest worker visa. The current programs are one year in duration, requiring employers to reapply annually — an expensive and time-consuming process that generally requires them to hire a lawyer to complete. He said he believes the H2C bill will pass the House but fail in the Senate, where it will not likely garner 60 votes.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.