U.S. agriculture faces a critical shortage of workers every year, as citizens are largely unwilling to engage in these rigorous activities and guestworker programs are unable to respond to the marketplace. This situation makes our farms less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms is essential to agriculture and to the U.S. economy.
Ag’s Labor Needs
Agriculture needs a balanced, sensible approach to immigration legislation that reflects the challenges agriculture faces daily. To most U.S. residents seeking employment, working in agriculture is not attractive. Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and are often transitory. For prospective foreign workers, these jobs provide real economic opportunities.
The demand for foreign workers is heightened due not only to the lack of a domestic workforce, but also the reverse migration of workers from the U.S. to Mexico, historic levels of immigration enforcement and bipartisan congressional commitment to a credible work authorization system through mandatory E-Verify. Those factors, combined with a rigid and often inflexible H-2A program, demonstrate the need for a new approach.
Without immigration reform, many farmers throughout the U.S. would remain extremely shorthanded in planting, growing and harvesting crops, and raising livestock. From Pennsylvania’s perspective, key segments of the agriculture industry – dairy and mushroom operations, for example – cannot take advantage of the current H-2A program because they have year-round labor needs. And, for the segments of the agriculture industry who can utilize the H-2A program – such as fruit and vegetable operations – they face a costly and burdensome program that is often difficult and even impossible to utilize successfully. In fact, a national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H-2A employers under the current rules showed that administrative delays result in workers arriving on average 22 days after the date of need causing an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms that hire H-2A workers. Costly recruitment requirements result in less than five percent of those referred by the government working the entire contract period.
This is an issue that has the potential to impact farms of all sizes and segments of the agriculture industry. Without a legal, farm-skilled workforce, we risk losing a large part of our domestic agriculture production. In fact, it is estimated that $5 to $9 billion in annual production is in jeopardy without workers in the field. Ultimately, a failure to secure a stable, legal workforce through immigration reform means importing more food and agricultural products from foreign countries and more U.S. farmers going out of business – hurting rural communities.
Reforms to the immigration system can ensure that American agriculture has a legal, stable supply of workers, both in the short- and long-term, for all types of agriculture. This requires a legislative solution that deals with the current unauthorized and experienced agricultural workforce and ensures that future needs are met through a program that will admit a sufficient number of willing and able workers in a timely manner. Past legislative proposals (e.g., AgJOBS, HARVEST Act, BARN Act and other bills) have attempted to reform the H-2A program to ensure a future workforce in agriculture. However, it is apparent that those proposals are no longer viable to meet agriculture's needs.
Agriculture needs a program that functions efficiently for states like California, where migrant farm workers move from job to job without contracts, while still providing the security of a contractual relationship in areas where there is little migration. While usage of the H-2A program has increased enormously in the last few years, the current structure and framework are no guarantee for future success, Farm Bureau is seeking the new approach outlined above to ensure a legal, reliable, long-term workforce for all sectors of the industry.
E-Verify is a computer system operated by the federal government to determine job applicants’ work authorization. Requiring agricultural employers to use E-Verify without assuring that a workable guest worker program is in place could have a significant, negative impact on U.S. farm production, threatening the livelihoods of many farmers in labor-intensive agriculture.
Farm Bureau could support a mandatory E-verify if: 1) the employment eligibility verification system is simple, conclusive, and timely; 2) provides an affirmative defense for employers acting in good faith; 3) allows for status adjustment of workers not authorized prior to implementation; and 4) be preceded by full implementation of a usable agriculture worker program.
Farm Bureau asks Congress to pass responsible immigration reform that addresses border security, fixes the legal immigration system and provides farmers with access to a legal and stable workforce.
Farm Bureau believes that only reform through legislation can solve the agricultural worker problem. In seeking a meaningful legislative solution to agriculture’s worker shortage, Farm Bureau believes that immigration reform must include the following two elements:
Agricultural Worker Program
An uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program (AWP) that is open to all segments of agriculture and is flexible enough to provide for the differing needs of farmers and ranchers. Such a program would allow workers to apply for positions “at-will” but also permit growers who wish to contract for such labor. It would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would not impose burdensome requirements on growers and would also call for a fair, economic wage structure for workers.
In order to minimize the impact on current economic activity, Farm Bureau supports an adjustment of status for experienced but unauthorized agricultural workers who currently reside in the U.S.