Ag Policy Blog

Agricultural Labor and Immigration Issues in Spotlight

By Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor

Former Ag Committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who now chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday he supports working to replace the H-2A program "and implement new policies that will bring our illegal agricultural workers out of the shadows, as a first step in the process of overhauling our nation's immigration system."

Goodlatte commented as the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security held a hearing Tuesday looking at issues affecting agricultural employers.

Members of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition also sent a letter Tuesday to House and Senate leadership calling for support of immigration legislation that addresses agriculture’s unique labor needs.

“American agriculture cannot continue as a bright spot in our economy without a legal, stable workforce,” the groups state in the letter. “Reforms to the immigration system can ensure that our farmers and ranchers have access to the workers they need, both in the short- and long-term. These reforms require a legislative solution, such as the AWC proposal, that moves beyond past initiatives which are no longer viable to meet agriculture's needs.”

The coalition noted that action is needed because producers have limited options when it comes to finding a skilled and dependable workforce. The Agriculture Working Coalition also continued to challenge the problems of the current guest-worker program, the H-2A, and called for a new framework.

“The H-2A program’s basic framework is overly restrictive and difficult for an employer to maneuver; however, in recent years it has become even more unworkable and costly to use,” the letter said. “A national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H-2A employers under the current rules showed that administrative delays have caused an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms.”

In testimony on Tuesday, farmers and others talked about the need for a comprehensive immigration bill that includes agricultural workers and not just people in high-tech jobs. Stallman also said the H-2A program is increasingly denying farmers the workers they need or creating new barriers that make it harder to get workers when farmers need them.

"U.S. agriculture needs a comprehensive, workable solution," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "We cannot wait."

Stallman testified the American Workforce Coalition not only wants a new program, but wants it administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Labor, which now oversees H-2A.

Chalmers Carr, a peach and vegetable farmer from South Carolina, represented USA Farmers, a group with more than 1,000 members representing agricultural employers. Carr also is chairman of the American Farm Bureau's Labor Committee. Carr noted that immigration reform in 1986 allowed more than 1.1 million people to become legal and many of those people left agricultural jobs. Thus, any overhaul now that gives permanent legal status also needs to ensure there is a guest worker program to bring a new flow of workers.

Giev Kashkooli, legislative director for the United Farm Workers, said his group's main priority would be to legalize the 1 million or more farm workers, and their family members, who may now be in the country illegally. "We believe that farm workers who harvest our food and feed us deserve at the very least the right to apply for permanent legal status."

Kashkooli said United Farm Workers wants to keep many of the provisions of the H-2A program that farmers on the panel would like to change. Carr criticized some requirements of H-2A, including the prevailing wage aspect. Carr cited that it artificially inflates the wages for farm workers. Kashkooli offered a counter view that if farm workers had legal status and the ability to leave a job or move from farm to farm, the wage scale might actually go up.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., gave praise the panel and work on immigration reform. Gutierrez then asked if a farm worker wanted to join a union, should a farmer be allowed to fire the worker. Stallman replied that farmers did not want to expand collective bargaining rights under the American Workforce Coalition proposal.

Meatpackers and others aren't as interested in a short-term guest-worker program, but keeping a stable workforce. With that, the National Chicken Council wants to expand a visa category to bring in more workers who can remain on the job.
"Some think there is an economic incentive for manufacturing employers to hire illegal immigrants at below-market wages," testified Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Our industry needs a stable workforce. We seek workers who will stay on the job long enough to become skilled and efficient, helping us to keep our food products and employees safe."

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, questioned the expanded pipeline from a broader guest-worker program, or one that allows as much as three years as a "guest worker." Smith said anyone coming into the country for a three-year temporary job would end up staying in the country.

Written testimony from Tuesday's hearing can be found at http://www.judiciary.house.gov/…

I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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Lon Truly 2/27/2013 | 10:13 AM CST
Perhaps more US citizens would be available to work if we were not so busy paying them not too work. See http://www.whptv.com/news/local/story/Living-the-good-life-off-of-government-benefits/OcplDUaU202odM47mcbdvg.cspx?rss=50
Ric Ohge 2/27/2013 | 10:06 AM CST
Once upon a time there was President who was once an actor, who came up with a brilliant sound-bite which was, "We have a 'trickle-down' Economy". Pundits and the MSM either embraced or cursed it, but never the less, it became part of the Public Lexicon. As time went on, behold, 'We The People', Wall Street, the Banksters and everyone with the need used it so much it became "fact", but only in that way Pop Culture can make. With the aide and abetting of Internet Bloggers & Keynesian Economists, it became true belief. [Klaxon Sounds] Absolutely, it was like unto the Emperor's New Clothes-it verily did not exist. For those wiser about such matters realized that monies of all kinds begin with the soil, with the Farmer, then rose through small enterprise, manufacturing and rose up unto those who have stood millenia at the apex of this great truth-but lo, they had forgotten this, and so crippled small farms and enterprise, which crippled manufacturing and so on, spreading malaise and futility to all enterprise. They allowed those who represented the people to postulate that taking away Liberty was Security, taking away monies to distribute to all equally would spur wealth, that using government to limit competition was wisdom. Then the weeds and storms came, the Banks began to fail, and Stamp Farms LLC went Bankrupt, and was auctioned into history. Anyone getting the picture yet?
Bonnie Dukowitz 2/27/2013 | 9:53 AM CST
Wrong again Jay! You can add though. Too bad you must be inflicted with tunnel vision. How, from my statement can you assume I do not think people who earned a pension do not deserve one? How can you assume I do not think government employees are not needed. I get the numbers you question from our household and family members being involved in local and attending Township, County and State Government informational seminars and meetings. Do I need to break down generalities in order for comprehention on your part?? How in the world can you assume I am a Tea Party member? When employees are forced to work irregular hours and mandatory overtime while there is a help wanted sign in the front window, where there is high unemployment, and government housing abounds, something is wrong. In your misguided assumptions I am supporting teen idolness, which you are so quick to codemn, I do not. Such is an area I ridicule and is promoted with the existance of liberal government programs. It may well do this nation much benefit for the arrogant to take a look at what groups, such as a Tea Party has to say. How in the world can you bring the race card into a general, broad statement? Some of your narrow minded comments are down right asinine.
Jay Mcginnis 2/27/2013 | 6:47 AM CST
You are assuming that people don't want to work, that retired people don't deserve retirement, that government employes aren't needed and that all unemployed are leaches,,,,, your figures add up to 100%,,,, where do you get such numbers? Such is the party of tea, those that feel threatened by change, part of that being hard working immigrants who are working while American teenagers (those that use to do such work)play violent video games. The party of tea sees people in the lowest denominator, that all nonwhite's are looking for handouts and need to be deported,,, I say look at the orchards, the vegetable fields, and all the work places that 'Tea party" folks look down and you will see who does the real work Bonnie! Yes you can find a few people that don't want to work but I can go to the local coffee shop and show you lots of 'Tea people" not working but talking in the tone of your comment!
Bonnie Dukowitz 2/27/2013 | 6:13 AM CST
In some ares of the nation, about 25% of the residents are on public assisstance 25% are employed by the gov. 25% retired and 25% unemployed. Why is it so easy not to work?