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The migrant labor shortages that Western New York farmers are complaining about could cripple farms nationwide, agriculture experts said at a House hearing Wednesday.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, farm groups said Congress has to act to prevent labor shortages that will make it difficult for farmers to bring in their crops. Those shortages result from an Immigration and Naturalization Service crackdown on illegal immigrants working in the fields.

Christopher Watt, an apple grower in Albion, said in a telephone interview that he only has two-thirds the workers he needs to bring in his apple harvest.

Knowing that INS agents are on the lookout for illegal immigrants, many migrant workers aren't even coming to Western New York for picking season this year. As a result, "people want to start harvesting, and don't have the crews to do it," Watt said.

Similar complaints have poured in from farmers nationwide, which is why farm groups are advocating a bill that would create a temporary program to allow 25,000 foreign workers a year to come into America for two years to work on the farms to replace the illegal immigrants being thrown out.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert Smith, R-Ore., is pushing that bill, co-sponsored by Reps. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, and Bill Paxon, R-Amherst.

The U.S. Department of Labor already has a program to help farmers in need of migrant workers, but that program "is too complex for the average American grower to use without the aid of a good lawyer," said John Hancock, former head of the agricultural labor certification unit at the Department of Labor.

James S. Holt, an economist who testified for the National Council of Agricultural Employers, termed the current temporary worker program "Gestapo-like" and "evil."

Without a new program, "The end result will be to reduce U.S. farm production and agribusiness employment," Holt said.

Only one witness at the hearing defended the status quo. Bruce Goldstein, co-executive director of the Farmworkers Justice Fund, said Labor Department statistics consistently show that there is no farm worker shortage.

"The guest worker proposal is not about a labor shortage," he said. "It is about granting agribusiness a federal exemption from the economic laws of competition so that employers may impose sub-poverty-level wages and working conditions."

News Washington Bureau assistant Lisa DiNicola also contributed to this report.

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