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Agricultural Organizations Welcome Recent Proposals for Immigration Reform

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Agricultural Organizations Welcome Recent Proposals for Immigration Reform

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Contributed By Amber Blasingame

The Agricultural Workforce Coalition is encouraged by the announcements both from the Senate and President Obama this week that Immigration Reform efforts recognize the needs of America’s farmers and ranchers.  Both proposals would create programs to legalize undocumented agricultural workers counted among the 11 million undocumented aliens in the United States, as well as reform guest worker programs to meet future workforce needs.

Immigration reform for the agricultural industry is a long time coming.  In recent years, American farmers and ranchers have been hit hard by state laws passed to deter the employment and, to a certain extent, the presence of undocumented aliens.  The decrease in foreign workers has decreased the available agricultural workforce.  Despite competitive wages in agricultural jobs and the rise in unemployment most U.S. workers are adverse to the physical demands and long hours required for such jobs.  California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said, “Farmers struggle to hire enough domestic employees, so they rely on foreign employees willing to harvest America’s food.”  He added, “Many of the people who tend to the food we eat are not properly documented.”  Certain agricultural industries rely heavily on undocumented workers, because the current guest worker programs do not extend to their needs.

In 2011, Washington State, apple orchards reported that due in part to immigration laws enacted in other states which reduced the labor force in addition to a late harvest, otherwise edible fruit was left on the trees to rot.  Similar problems ensued in 2012, when Washington once again experienced a high yield crop, while other states and regions, such as New York, Michigan, Canada, and Europe experienced low yield due to bad weather.  Migrants have found it harder and harder, because of state immigration laws, to find their way north to Washington for the harvest.  Most orchards in Washington have found the current available agricultural guest worker program daunting in terms of expense and paperwork.  Growers have attempted to recruit pickers from other sources.  Many have posted “help wanted” signs, negotiated with neighbors to share the available labor, or paid the high cost of hiring prison inmates to bring in the harvest.  However, the effort was not enough for the orchards to harvest all the apples before the elements rendered the fruit inedible.  One grower reported that in the 10 years he has been in business, he has only been approached by one US worker to pick apples.  Even with 9 percent unemployment, US workers still will not apply to pick apples.

Although means exist for agricultural employers to hire a legal workforce, limitations and bureaucratic red tape in the existing guest worker programs leave many employers lacking the labor necessary to keep the cost of food at the low prices we have come to expect.  The current guest worker program for agricultural workers relies on the availability of H-2A visas.  However, H-2A visas come with highly restrictive limitations and challenging regulations which exclude certain agricultural industries, especially dairy farmers.  Under the H-2A regulations, an agricultural job must be seasonal, intermittent, or for a limited one-time need.  Produce farmers and even cattle ranchers may qualify under such limitations, because these industries work on a seasonal basis.  However, dairy farms demand a high and stable, year-round workforce, with only a few exceptions for workers skilled in animal husbandry.  In Wisconsin, 40{b6b8f04f7bd4b863c4cfed8339fd19419bda3e071c79bc5ac8c810cb9c52e30f} of dairy farm workers are immigrants, 90{b6b8f04f7bd4b863c4cfed8339fd19419bda3e071c79bc5ac8c810cb9c52e30f} of these immigrants are from Mexico, and over 50{b6b8f04f7bd4b863c4cfed8339fd19419bda3e071c79bc5ac8c810cb9c52e30f} are undocumented.  In recent years, the dairy industry has experienced an increasing demand in production, and reports that a loss of any of these available immigrant workers would result in the closure of dairies and an increase in the price of dairy products.  Dairy farms face a challenge to hire US workers, because for the start-up wages of $10 or $12 per hour, most US workers prefer less labor intensive jobs at similar wages.  In a recent example, a print shop in Waterloo, Wisconsin, closed and laid off hundreds of U.S. workers.  Nearby Crave Brothers Dairy Farm reported that only a few of these unemployed workers applied for jobs at the dairy which requires a 24 hour, 365 day a year workforce.

If America is continue to enjoy the low cost of food that we have come to expect from our agricultural production, reform is necessary.  Immigration enforcement should be a part of this reform, but to support enforcement, our agricultural businesses need better and more accessible means to hire a legal workforce to meet the demands of our growing population.

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