Agriculture lobbyists are once again standing in the way of E-Verify

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was a byproduct of hard-fought compromise:  employer sanctions and interior enforcement in exchange for a two-pronged amnesty that included a special program for seasonal agricultural workers.

As a result of that compromise, 1.3 million illegal workers applied for Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) status. By all accounts the program was rife with fraud. SAW also turned out to be useless from the standpoint of the agricultural industry. No sooner did the workers receive their amnesty than they quickly abandoned low-paid  farm jobs for more desirable jobs in other sectors of the labor market. Thus, the industry turned to the next wave of illegal aliens to exploit.

{mosads}To maintain their continued access to malleable illegal labor, agricultural interest groups needed to ensure that nearly all of IRCA’s  enforcement promises would go unfulfilled. While the border remains the focus of attention, the linchpin of IRCA was the employer sanctions provision. It was intended to close a legal anomaly under which employers were free to hire people who were not authorized to work inside the United States.


The “employer sanctions provision” was a great concept, but no sooner had President Ronald Reagan’s signature on IRCA dried than business interests — led by the agriculture lobby — set about to ensure that that prohibition would be rendered meaningless.

To be effective, employer sanctions must have a sufficient enforcement mechanism that holds violators accountable. That mechanism is E-Verify, a simple program that allows all employers to verify work eligibility. IRCA’s employer sanctions provision still lacks such a requirement largely because certain industries — like the agriculture industry — take advantage of low-wage illegal workers, and use their considerable lobbying clout to prevent E-Verify from becoming mandatory.

Immigration will likely be a big issue in the midterm elections. So, House members from both parties introduced a proposal that would finally phase in the mandatory use of E-Verify by all employers, given that the program enjoys broad public support. Yielding to the power of the agriculture lobby, the AG and Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 6417) once again makes significant concessions in exchange for such a mandate. The bill creates a streamlined program, known as the H-2C visa, that guarantees growers and other agricultural producers access to a bare minimum of 1.2 million guest workers. Moreover, the bill would allow many current illegal aliens to qualify as legal H-2C workers.

Whether there is an actual shortage of agricultural workers, or whether it is a self-induced problem derived from substandard wages and working conditions, is a highly debatable point. Not only does the Ag and Legal Workforce Act offer agricultural employers very generous access to guest workers at low wages and with minimal fuss, it sweetens the pot by relieving them of having to provide housing and transportation for these workers.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, along with over 200 agricultural interest groups across the country said yes to the proposal. After three decades of foot-dragging, it seemed that meaningful employment and wage protections for American workers were finally within reach. However, for some farm lobbyists, the mass labor subsidy contained in the bill still is not enough.

Shortly after the bill’s introduction, the deal was unceremoniously scuttled by several powerful California-based agricultural interest groups who decided they’d rather just keep things as they are—even at the expense of American workers nationally. Led by the Western Growers Association and California Farm Bureau Federation, these agricultural employers made clear that they would rather stick with a system that allows them to violate immigration and labor laws with impunity than accept a generous, industry-friendly guest worker program that imposes minimal requirements. Western Growers’ CEO Tom Nassif announced in a victory statement that his group blocked a House vote on the Ag and Legal Workforce Act before Congress adjourned for the August recess.

Thanks to the short-sighted and unpatriotic actions of a few agriculture lobbyists, Americans in all sectors of the labor market will continue to lose job opportunities and wages to illegal aliens who can beat the system by using fraudulent or stolen documents. Taxpayers will continue to be forced to subsidize the basic needs of low-wage illegal aliens and their families, while the direct employers reap all the benefits. And, large-scale illegal immigration, with its myriad fiscal and social costs will continue unabated. 

Dan Stein is president at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit group that advocates for legal immigration.

Tags Agriculture Dan Stein E-Verify Guest worker program Illegal immigration Immigration Immigration to the United States

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