Migrant workers harvest corn on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, CA. USDA photo by Bob Nichols

The Trump Administration’s latest dive into the immigration debate leaves farmers without needed laborers while farmworker groups call for a permanent path to citizenship as a solution to the agricultural labor crisis.

To fill the labor need, farmers have turned to two controversial sources of labor for supporting the nation’s vast vegetable, fruit, nut and livestock operations: hiring illegal immigrants and utilizing a “guestworker” visa program that allows immigrants to work for a specific farm for up to 10 months before returning home.

“This is a nation of immigrants, not of guestworkers,” said said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice. “We have to address the reality that more than half of farmworkers today are undocumented, that they live in constant fear for deportation, of being removed from their jobs and their families.”

Goldstein said the worker shortage is well documented. “There’s a story in a major newspaper, across the media every day about the lack of agricultural workers in the labor force,” he said. “This is difficult and productive work, work that’s the backbone of the food system. Immigrant farmworkers, both legal and the undocumented, are the people working these jobs.”

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition is a network of farmers that is urging the Trump Administration to help solve the farm labor shortage. The coalition says the problem with an inadequate labor supply affects both farmers and rural America in general.

The economic health of food and fiber producers, and the rural communities in which they live, is threatened by the lack of a reliable, stable and legal workforce. Our farmers face growing shortages of legally authorized and experienced workers each year. Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and are often transitory. This shortage of labor negatively impacts our economic competitiveness, local economies, and jobs. Reforms are necessary to address the agricultural labor shortage.

For farmers looking to hire additional workers, and for farmworkers looking for jobs, one of the critical programs is the H2A Program. Administered by the Department of Labor, the H2A program provides temporary visas to immigrant farm laborers as “guest workers,” usually for periods of 10-months or less. H2A visas tie a worker to a specific farm or labor organization for the season, and then workers return to their native country, usually Mexico.

“The H2A program is expanding, period,” said Dr. Philip Martin, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis. He edits Rural Migration News, has served on several federal commissions, and testifies frequently before Congress. “H2A will continue to grow just like it has in the past decade.”

Martin says that the number of H2A workers has increased to replace geographically settled workers who have long-term, on-farm jobs. “Farmworkers don’t move much,” he said. “Only 2% of farmworkers follow the harvest, as a lot of people assume they do. They pretty much stay where they settle.”

President Trump announced last week that he is supporting legislation that slashes the number of permanent legal immigrants allowed into the nation from 1 million per year to 500,000. The legislation, proposed by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA), would change immigration rules to a “merit-based system” that favors English speakers, the highly educated, and those with job skills that are in high demand.

Farmworker Justice, using USDA and Department of Labor Statistics, estimates that there are 2.5 million farmworkers laboring on our nation’s farms and ranches. Though the data is imperfect due to the difficulty of collecting information from undocumented immigrants, the organization estimates that roughly 1.2 million to 1.75 million farmworkers are undocumented and approximately 750,000 to 1.3 million farmworkers are United States citizens or lawful immigrants. The National Agriculture Worker Survey finds that about 33% of farmworkers are United States citizens, 18% are lawful permanent residents and another 1% have other work authorization.

The economic consequences of the agriculture labor gap are huge, according to economists. Dr. Stephen G. Bronars, of Edgeworth Economics, has studied the economic impact of the farm labor shortage. His report, A Vanishing Breed: How the Decline in U.S. Farm Laborers Over the Last Decade Has Hurt the U.S. Economy and Slowed Production on American Farms, finds that the farm labor shortage costs $3.1 billion a year in direct economic activity. :

Bronars writes, “given that farm revenues often trickle down to other industries in our economy, that $3.1 billion in additional farm production would have led to almost $2.8 billion in added spending on non-farm services like transportation, manufacturing, and irrigation each year. That spending would have created more than 41,000 additional non-farm jobs in our economy annually.”

The H2A guestworker system is not a good solution to the farm labor shortage, according to both the farmers and farmworkers who testified at a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on the issue in July. Farmers said that program is overly bureaucratic, and the administrative burden can lead to workers arriving too late for their seasonal labor needs. Livestock producers, whose animals require daily labor rather than seasonal demands, criticize the program for not allowing a year-round labor option.

Farmworker groups don’t believe that H2A system adequately protects worker rights, and that H2A workers are burdened with excessive fees and predatory debts for navigating the guestworker visa paperwork and transportation process. They are collaborating with House and Senate Democrats to propose a different immigration process for needed agricultural laborers, the Agricultural Worker Program Act.

“The core issue, the solution to the long-term issue of agricultural employment, is establishing a path to citizenship for farm workers,” said Farmworker Justice President Goldstein. “The Agricultural Worker Program Act accomplishes this goal and H2A doesn’t. This is fundamentally an issue of economic freedom, of democratic rights, and of addressing the reality of the food system’s labor needs in a fair way.”

The Agricultural Worker Program Act is being proposed both in the House and Senate. Supporters include the United Farmworkers of America, Farmworker Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Farm Labor Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza, and many other groups.

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