The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally transformed our way of life-- how we work, how we celebrate, how we grieve. But one thing remains constant: we still need to put food on the table for our families, and we rely on millions of immigrant workers to do that.
Yet even as food pantries are struggling to serve Americans lined up for miles, crops sit unpicked in the field rotting. The problem isn’t the farmers. We support sound and coherent immigration policies, especially ones that strengthen and stabilize our food supply chains. The problem is a lack of political will.
The shortage of farm workers is nothing new. Even before COVID-19, the agricultural sector was already experiencing extreme labor scarcity. But the pandemic has certainly raised the stakes. Public health concerns and agricultural labor shortages have left many farms on the brink of collapse, jeopardizing our ability to move crops from the fields to the markets that need them.
As the former chairman of the Florida Tomato Committee and one of the largest grower of fresh-market tomatoes in the U.S., I have always been aware of the critical contributions that immigrants make to our economy and workforce. A substantial 53 percent of current farm workers were born outside the country. Many of them are also undocumented, with little protection, and no path to work authorization. They do hard work in harsh conditions – jobs that, frankly, many Americans will not take.
The key to addressing our current labor shortages lies not only in maintaining a robust guest worker program, but also in repairing our broken immigration system so as to protect our existing farm workers and farms.
Some suggest that these agricultural jobs should be reserved for the over 40 million American workers currently out of a job due to the pandemic. This sounds great in theory, but the reality is that the majority of unemployed Americans will not fill these open positions. Most lack either the skill or an interest in back-breaking agricultural labor. We know this because, in the ten weeks since America largely shut down, our ability to find people to bring in our crops has become more difficult, not easier.
This fact was highlighted in a recent letter from prominent Republican Senators, including Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (S.C.) and Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (Texas), urging President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE to not restrict the worker visas that many industries essential to the COVID-19 response rely on. They understand that if our tenuous food supply chain breaks down, it will be devastating at all levels, and it will severely hamper our country’s ability to recover post-COVID.
In the wake of this unprecedented crisis, there are signs that the government may agree. Undocumented farm workers across the nation have received letters from the Department of Homeland Security identifying them as “essential workers,” and ICE has stated that the agency will be focusing their enforcement activities on “public safety risks”, which presumably do not include farm workers.
But we need more than letters from DHS that, at best, only serve as a temporary reprieve from deportation for undocumented farm workers. We need common-sense policies that sustainably increase access to a documented agricultural workforce, preserve our existing experienced workforce and protect our immigrant farm workers.
A policy solution does exist. In fact, it’s already sitting in the Senate. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support last fall, provides a pathway to legal status for the undocumented workers who are the backbone of our food supply chain and makes much-needed improvements to the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program. The bill will facilitate the supply of labor farms currently lack, provide greater protections for workers, and, in the process, safeguard the food supply chain, economy and health of our citizens.
Our current crisis has exposed where systems and structures across the country were inadequate or outdated. Now more than ever, we need our elected officials to come together to support policies that protect our communities and economy, starting with our food supply. The future of our nation depends on it.
Paul DiMare is president and CEO of DiMare Fresh and co-chair of the American Business Immigration Coalition and IMPAC Fund.