March 24, 2023

New Mexico Seeks New Ways to Protect Homegrown Chile Peppers

Chile peppers are a crop under assault, though — from foreign competitors like Mexico, where harvesting could cost less than one-third of what it costs in New Mexico. Meanwhile, prolific growers in California surpassed the state years ago in the quantity of chile peppers harvested from its fields to become the nation’s No. 1 producer, according to statistics from the federal Agriculture Department.

Farmers have also been facing a vexing challenge on the ground: keeping chile grown outside New Mexico from being sold as homegrown, a deceptive practice that is common and hard to detect.

Charlie Marquez, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Chile Association, described the situation as “disturbing.” State Representative Rodolpho S. Martinez, a Democrat whose district encompasses the heart of chile country, stared ahead, rubbed his knuckles and called it an “outrage.”

Last month, Mr. Martinez introduced a bill to add some teeth to a 2011 law that everyone had hoped would safeguard the status of New Mexico’s chiles, but has fallen short. The new bill aims to force out-of-state chile peppers, in their natural and processed forms, to display on their package an unusual disclaimer: “not grown in New Mexico.”

“It’s to guard against impostors, to keep them honest,” Representative Martinez said on a recent morning.

Protecting New Mexican chile peppers has been a tough battle, in part because not every legislator buys into the idea that the right way to do it is to create more rules. The state, hobbled by a sluggish economic recovery, has also found it difficult to find money to finance new programs.

Representative Martinez’s bill passed unanimously in the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee last month. Then, on Wednesday, it was shelved by an 8-to-7 vote in the House Judiciary Committee after a spirited debate over whether it might be too burdensome for small growers. On Thursday, though, there was already talk that the bill could be resurrected after the committee’s chairwoman, Representative Gail Chasey, a Democrat, said, “It is not necessarily dead.” An identical bill has already been introduced in the Senate. Washington State trademarked its apples in 1961 and Virginia trademarked its peanuts in 2006. In the late 1980s, under stiff competition from states like Texas and California, Georgia wrote into law exactly what type of seeds and soil would yield its sweet Vidalia onions. A year later, the federal government endorsed the same parameters and the brand was certified in 1990.

Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, which handles marketing and research on behalf of growers and packers of Vidalia onions, said that more than protecting the crop, “the State of Georgia worked hard to build the Vidalia brand.”

New Mexico has opted for a modest and incremental approach. Its 2011 law gave inspectors from the state’s Agriculture Department the ability to seek court injunctions against companies that falsely advertise their chile peppers as being from New Mexico by allowing them to inspect stores and audit companies’ sales books. Last July, the department began requiring a certificate of authenticity to accompany chile peppers from the field to the point of sale or processing plant. Katie Goetz, the department’s spokeswoman, said the most obvious violations found so far have been in red chile pods sold in plastic bags that feature the words “New Mexico chile,” as well as “Hecho en Mexico” or “Made in Mexico.”

Under the same bill, Mr. Martinez proposed going after out-of-state chile peppers sold under brands bearing names of cities, counties and other New Mexico localities known for their chile production, like “Hatch chile,” named after the southern village that hosts a huge chile festival every year. Its main targets, however, are big chain stores, which he said may not be as diligent as roadside vegetable stands about checking the origin of the products they offer.

“Maintaining our brand is important,” Representative Martinez said, even if for a declining industry. In 2011, chile peppers were harvested along 9,500 acres of land. Nearly a decade earlier in 1992, harvested fields covered more than 34,000 acres, according to the New Mexico Chile Association.

Mr. Marquez said a chile pepper harvester makes about $90 a day in New Mexico and about $20 in Mexico, which results in a big discrepancy in their sale prices. Still, he went on, “We’re so proud of it, we’re willing to pay a premium for New Mexico chile.”

The question, however, is whether the average customer can taste the difference in chile peppers that come from this place or that.

Yes, Mr. Marquez said, “if you’re comparing chile from New Mexico and chile from Colorado.” But, he conceded, “30 miles south of the border, in Mexico, they’re growing chile that is very similar to ours and the vast majority of people probably couldn’t tell them apart.”

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The Caucus: Pawlenty Is Leaving Romney Campaign for Lobbying Post

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is resigning as a national co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to take a job in Washington as a top lobbyist for a group representing banks and financial companies.

Mr. Palwenty’s new role as President and chief executive of the Financial Services Roundtable was announced by the organization Thursday morning. In a statement, the group said that Mr. Pawlenty would step down from his role at Mr. Romney’s campaign because the organization is bipartisan.

“My time in public service was rewarding and focused on achieving results,” Mr. Pawlenty said in the statement. “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve, but I am now moving on and committed to focusing fully on this new opportunity.”

In a statement issued by Mr. Romney’s campaign, Mr. Pawlenty added: “My work with Mitt has been a privilege. Mitt Romney is a truly good man and great leader. As the campaign moves into the home stretch, he has my full support and continued faith in his vision and his policies.”

Mr. Palwenty was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination last year but dropped out of the race early after a disappointing performance at the Iowa straw poll. He endorsed Mr. Romney early in the fall of 2011 and campaigned for him during the height of the primaries.

He was also on the short list to be Mr. Romney’s vice-presidential running mate. But despite an aggressive campaigning effort by Mr. Pawlenty earlier this year, Mr. Romney passed him over in favor of Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

In a brief interview at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last month, Mr. Pawlenty played down his role on Mr. Romney’s behalf.

“I’m just a volunteer,” he told The Caucus, “so I’ve got other stuff I’ve got to do. So as my schedule allows, I’ll go out and do surrogate speaking.”

That “other stuff” apparently involved seeking the top job at the roundtable, an organization that seeks to shape federal regulations on behalf of about 100 major financial services companies. The group’s Web site says that its mission is to “protect and promote the economic vitality and integrity of its members and the United States financial system.” It has spent $4.7 million on lobbying in the first two quarters of this year.

The group says it seeks to achieve those goals through “legislative and regulatory advocacy; strong industry reputation of trust and confidence; and premier executive leadership forums.”

In a statement, Mr. Romney praised Mr. Pawlenty as “a dear friend” who brought “energy, intelligence and tireless dedication to every enterprise in which he’s ever been engaged.”

Mr. Romney said that he regretted Mr. Pawlenty’s need to step down from his campaign, but said that “his new position advancing the integrity of our financial system is vital to the future of our country. I congratulate him on his new position and wish him every success in carrying out his new mission.”

Mr. Pawlenty will begin his new role on Nov. 1.

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How a Small Business Can Survive an Immigration Audit

L. E. Cook was one of 1,444 businesses to receive an introduction to ICE’s stepped-up worksite enforcement program in 2009 — almost three times the number audited in 2008. Last year, 2,196 businesses were audited. An ICE representative said the agency did not categorize audits by business type and that the law applied across industries.

“Any company is at risk at any given time,” said Leon Versfeld, an immigration lawyer in Kansas City, Mo. In one prominent case, American Apparel, the clothing manufacturer, was forced to terminate 1,800 undocumented workers after a 2009 audit. Chipotle Mexican Grill, the restaurant chain, has let go hundreds of workers since its audit began last year.

While the administration of George W. Bush focused on headline-making raids that resulted in arrests of immigrant workers, the Obama administration has gone after employers with ICE’s I-9 audits on the theory that employers who hire unauthorized workers create the demand that drives most illegal immigration.

In addition, the Social Security Administration has resumed sending “no-match” letters after a three-year hiatus. The letters, which alert employers that information on an employee’s W-2 form does not match information on file with the Social Security Administration, had been halted in 2007. The main purpose is ostensibly to ensure that employee Social Security accounts are credited properly, but the letters can also be used by ICE to show that an employer had reason to believe an employee might not have documentation.

“The master narrative of immigration reform is being crafted around the notion of unscrupulous employers seeking cheap labor,” said Craig Regelbrugge, a lawyer and lobbyist with the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

Unscrupulous employers exist, Mr. Regelbrugge said, but more often he sees business owners who are just trying to follow the law. When a new hire produces seemingly legitimate forms of documentation required by the I-9 form, the employer must accept them. (To refuse could expose the owner to charges of employment discrimination.) “The employer is not required to be a forensics expert,” said Monte Lake, an immigration lawyer in Washington.

The upshot of the more aggressive enforcement is that even employers who have followed the rules can be devastated by an audit that compels them to fire valuable, long-time employees.

The I-9 audit of Mr. Cox’s nursery revealed that 26 of his 99 employees were not authorized to work in the United States. Because ICE determined he had acted reasonably in hiring them, Mr. Cox was not fined or held criminally liable. But after confirming that the 26 employees could not produce authentic documents, he was forced to fire them. All had been with him for five to 10 years, and he lost half of his budding crew, a highly specialized team that grafts trees. “Telling them was probably the worst day of my life,” he said. “I don’t just sit at a desk here, I’m actually out in the field harvesting with them.”

Mr. Cox said he was lucky the audit hit midrecession, after he had already reduced his work force and inventory. Still, he estimates that his 2009 expenses climbed 10 percent as a result of the terminations. And, despite California’s high unemployment rate, finding replacement employees has proved challenging. “I’ve gone through more workers this year than I have in the past 10 years combined,” Mr. Cox said.

While most such workers earn the $8-an-hour minimum wage in California, Mr. Cox said he generally paid $8.90 an hour for a 50-hour week. The terminated budding crew workers made $10 an hour. Compensation includes state-mandated overtime of time and a half, health insurance and two weeks’ paid vacation. “If I raised the wage,” he said, “I’d have to shut my doors.”

Meanwhile, after an audit, ICE does not round up the affected workers for deportation. That meant Mr. Cox’s former workers were free to seek employment elsewhere — including with his competitors. Mr. Cox said that he knew through his remaining workers that the terminated employees were all working in the area.

After the audit, Mr. Cox started using E-Verify, a federal program that lets employers confirm the authenticity of a job applicant’s Social Security and green card numbers electronically. Although the program’s use is mandatory in some states, its reliability has been debated, and it remains voluntary in California. A bill in Congress that would require all American employers to use the program could go to a vote this month.

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