Most Americans, and especially most farmers and ranchers, heartily agree that our country’s immigration system needs work. Inaction in Washington has brought us to this point, and it will take action from our elected leaders to start us on a path to a solution.
The immigration reform bill the Senate approved last month will help to accomplish this. The organization I represent, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, strongly supports its passage.
The biggest challenge many agricultural entrepreneurs face today is finding and hiring the workers they need to run their farms and ranches. It doesn’t matter what Mother Nature throws at you if you don’t have the help to pick crops or care for animals, through good years and bad. This is a challenge for lettuce farmers in California, dairy farmers in upstate New York — and tomato growers in northwest Ohio.
This issue affects communities beyond the farm gate. Each of the two million or so hired farm workers in the United States supports two or three other jobs in sales, marketing, and transportation. The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation estimates that one in seven Ohioans has a job related to or dependent on agriculture.
This shortage of workers bumps up against an open secret in agriculture: Of the 2 million hired farm employees, between 60 and 70 percent are unauthorized to work in the United States, although they typically show employers documents that appear genuine.
The farmers and ranchers I talk to do not want to have to keep this secret. They want a skilled, stable work force that they can depend on and that is in this country legally. Unfortunately, they cannot find it.
Despite the recent recession, farmers continue to offer pay that often is significantly higher than the minimum wage. Yet they still have extreme difficulty finding workers.
In many cases, it is not the money that makes these jobs unappealing to many Americans. Rather, it is the seasonal and often transitory nature of the work.
Most people do not want a job that lasts only six weeks. Even fewer want to travel across the country, from south to north each year, following the harvest seasons.
Existing guest worker programs, such as the H-2A program, could in theory offer a way to find workers. But such programs have become bureaucratic nightmares that supply fewer than 4 percent of the workers needed on American farms.
To respond to this need, about 70 organizations that represent agricultural employers joined to form the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, to speak with one voice and find a path forward on immigration reform. After weeks of negotiations with the United Farm Workers union this spring, our groups united employers and employees behind a proposal that would help ensure America’s farmers access to a stable and secure work force.
This agreement is reflected in the agricultural provisions of the Senate immigration legislation. It would deal with current unauthorized workers through a new “blue card” program. Farm workers could apply for the card if they pay a fine, undergo background checks, and prove that they have farm-work experience. A blue card would not grant citizenship; it only would allow the employee to remain in the country to do farm work.
The Senate bill also would address the future work needs of agriculture by replacing the broken H-2A program with a flexible, market-based initiative that meets the needs of all farmers while protecting the rights of workers.
As the House takes up its version of immigration reform, we urge support for bipartisan legislation that will provide a boost to American farmers, consumers, and workers.
Charles Conner is president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
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