Ag Policy Blog

Agricultural Labor and Immigration Issues in Spotlight

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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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.”

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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…

I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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