An immigration solution we can’t wait for

The American consumer has grown to assume that supermarket produce departments will always overflow with abundant varieties of fruits and vegetables. In reality, that assumption has been historically safe given the productivity, inventiveness, reliability and plain hard work of the agricultural production and processing industries. But before those commodities are processed, transported and displayed by produce managers in stores, they begin in the fields of American farms — not through some miracle of spontaneous generation.

Following months of sowing, watering and protection from pests and disease, comes the function without which our nation’s tables, snack packs and school lunchboxes would be empty — that is the harvest. And there would be no harvest without the men and women whose critically important role in the American food chain is so neglected: our farm labor force. Pixie dust does not move peaches and nectarines from tree to table.

{mosads}Due to what has now become a cliche phrase — the “broken immigration system” — the reliability of that labor force is jeopardized. The failure to recruit enough workers has serious and inescapable consequences for farmers with the prospect of fruits and vegetables rotting in fields and on trees. In turn, there are obvious, serious and inescapable consequences for American consumers in the form of shortages of fresh produce if action is not taken to provide for a dependable number of workers in narrow harvest windows.

President Obama’s recent executive action may have been intended to provide solutions and even prod the Congress into asserting its constitutional role. But, to date, instead of moving to unclog legislative pipelines to enact immigration reform, the president’s unilateral decision has muddied the national debate — from one over resolving long unmet needs to an acrimonious political smackdown with no endgame. In the process, Washington has introduced more doublespeak into the lexicon of government — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Deferred Action for Parents (DAP) — all connected programmatically to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), DOL (Department of Labor), FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

So this alphabet soup of confusion has had the opposite result as it relates to the farm industry’s struggle to plan for crop seasons that are only weeks away. Indeed, even the complicated and controversial relief the president had in mind is not likely to have practical effects until 2016. The miracle of agricultural science has yet to produce grapes and strawberries with 15 months of shelf life. But even as the president has purported to act, our industry is now faced even more starkly with the opposite. Emerging from this political maelstrom is the real culprit: inaction.

The decision-making process in Washington now appears frozen — a not unusual circumstance as regards the immigration dialogue. Preventing implementation of the president’s action may stir the souls of constitutional lawyers, but the result is the same — no real-life answers to the central issue posed at the beginning of this essay. Agriculture’s need for certainty and reliability in the provision of farm labor is orphaned on the Potomac.

This does not have to be. Of course, the best result is one for which everyone yearns, and that is comprehensive legislation that speaks to all sides of the immigration debate. Reliable workforces. Borders that mean something. America as a haven for the oppressed and a landing place for creative new citizens. But American agriculture cannot wait for the perfect solution, because the perfect solution in the current political environment seems unlikely.

But even as we wait for the global solution, there are intermediate measures which are realistic and doable. One is a guest worker program for agricultural workers — allowing them in for harvest needs, monitoring their stay and monitoring their return. We acknowledge the octane levels of the “border security” debate. But what our industry proposes is common sense in the extreme: When guests are invited, doors don’t need locks. By creating a process by which workers come and go as guests, the border becomes “self-secured” as applied to those individuals.

Perhaps if the first presidential primaries were held in the San Joaquin, Imperial and Yuma Valleys of California and Arizona, life would be different. But our industry has to live in the real world. As we await the sweeping accomplishment of the regular order in Congress, we don’t need to wait to address a dire situation that will easily morph into the crisis of crippling food production over vast swaths of farmland. The earth has given us unbelievable gifts; we would be foolish to squander them.

Nassif is president and CEO of Western Growers, which represents local and regional family farmers growing fresh produce in Arizona and California. He served as a member of the Reagan administration, first in 1981 as deputy chief of protocol for the White House, later as deputy assistant secretary for Near East and South Asian Affairs in 1983 at the Department of State, and finally in 1985 when he was named U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco by President Reagan. Most recently, he successfully negotiated the agriculture portion of S. 744 with the leader of the United Farm Workers union, “The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” which was passed in the Senate in June 2013.

Tags Agriculture farm labor Guest worker program Immigration Immigration reform

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