Immigration reform will significantly impact agriculture
April 19, 2017
Immigration reform in the U.S. likely would have a significant impact on the agriculture industry. Producers who would be impacted the most are those who rely on immigrants for both seasonal and year-round labor, who enter the U.S. to help plant, tend and harvest crops. Some producers say they are looking at mechanizing harvest, so they don't have to worry about the potentially looming employment problems.
Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said immigration reform is a priority for the organization.
"Ranchers and farmers across the country rely on a foreign-born labor force, so immigration reform is critical to our stability and making sure farmers can prune and harvest crops, feed cows, milk dairy cows," Boswell said. "Farm Bureau supports border security as it's an important part of a responsible security system and it's important to enforce the law, but because of the current labor workforce, there may be unintended consequences or disruptions, especially considering over half of the workforce is employees with fraudulent documents."
Boswell said the federation is working with Congress to help reduce or eliminate the "dramatic impact" it would have on the workforce.
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"In order for farmers and ranchers to have access to a legal and stable workforce, the American Farm Bureau is advocating that Congress pass the new flexible visa program that works for seasonal and year-round workers, and to adjust the status for an experienced workforce working on farms with documents that are not as good as they look," she said.
Thomas Hertz, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that during 2006 to 2010, hired farm labor constituted 17 percent of variable production expenses in U.S. agriculture. That number jumps to 35 percent in the more labor-intensive areas such as vegetable production, 46 percent for nursery products and 48 percent for fruit production. A U.S. Department of Labor study showed that in a 15-year time span, approximately half of the workers hired to help with U.S. crops were unauthorized.
"From my own research and that of others, we know that the number of Mexican-born people in the U.S., both authorized and unauthorized, has declined since 2007 for a variety of reasons. Part of that is because the Mexican economy has improved and there was less reason to risk migration to the U.S. Also, the demographics in Mexico are changing. The birthrate has declined and Mexican families are starting to be smaller, so there are fewer people in the young adult male demographic that provides the bulk of the unauthorized immigration," Hertz said.
Changes in border enforcement practices meant that repeat violations resulted in high penalties, which Hertz said may have led to fewer border crossings. The recession and economic crisis in 2008-2009, prompting construction jobs to disappear, also led a lot of immigrants to go back home, Hertz said. Furthermore, the average age of Mexican-born farm workers is rising and there aren't many others to take their place.
"Many U.S. farmers are concerned that the era of abundant, unauthorized labor may be ending and anything that is done to hasten the decrease in the availability of unauthorized labor will be felt by farmers who grow labor-intensive crops," Hertz said.
One of the initiatives designed to help this looming concern is the H-2A program. It offers a way to bring in foreign farm workers legally on a temporary 10-month basis. It's administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, the State Department and Homeland Security. The program sets a minimum wage that is higher than the minimum wage in most states. There are a number of bills in Congress that would modify the H-2A program, making it easier to use, cheaper and less bureaucratically cumbersome.
"California growers rely on a mix of legal and unauthorized workers predominantly from Mexico, and have not historically used the H-2A program, but that's changing. Farmers are biting the bullet and learning to navigate the complexities of the H-2A system," Hertz said. "The number of H-2A workers has doubled in the past five years and probably will continue to increase. ❖
— Danley-Greiner has spent more than 20 years as a journalist covering local, state and national issues important to agriculture and those dedicated to farming.