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Why American farms need immigration reform


Among the many essential workers who have kept America running through the coronavirus pandemic are the nation’s three million farmworkers. In March 2020, the Department of Homeland Security sent many of them certificates to carry on the job, declaring them “essential critical infrastructure workers.” We need you, the agency said.

By one estimate, around 70 percent of U.S. farmworkers are undocumented. This puts them in a much more precarious position than other essential workers. Despite working on the pandemic’s frontlines, many of our undocumented farmworkers still lack access to basic medical coverage due to their immigration status. Even though they pay taxes, most have also been denied government stimulus checks. On top of that, these workers must live in constant fear of immigration officials.

The American agriculture industry relies on undocumented workers to put food on our tables. They are stepping up for us, but our immigration system isn’t stepping up for them. We need Congress to make it right by passing farmworker reform that encourages new immigrant workers while providing a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented workers in our fields today. In March, the House passed legislation that would achieve those goals, with support from both sides of the aisle and from constituencies representing both farmworkers and growers. 

In the ag sector, immigration reform isn’t a partisan issue — it’s an undisputed necessity.

Immigrant workers have always been a huge part of the American agriculture industry. Even before the pandemic, the native-born agricultural workforce was shrinking, exacerbating a severe labor shortage that has long impeded American farms. More than 40 percent of farmers say they are unable to obtain the necessary workers to produce their main crops.

Desperate for good workers, farmers have raised wages and sought new ways to advertise openings. But these are not easy openings to fill. Work on America’s farms requires a combination of grit, skill and experience. It means rising early and leaving the fields late; picking, sorting and packing harvested produce; and operating difficult machinery outdoors in any and all weather conditions. Those who stay often need to have a history with the job and with the soil.

Most Americans are not willing or able to take on these jobs. In 2010, with U.S. unemployment near 10 percent, a 25-year high, United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” campaign offered 1.8 million farming jobs to unemployed Americans. Only seven American workers stayed on after a few weeks of work in the fields.

With Americans unwilling to work on the farm, many growers have naturally turned to our legal immigration system. But that system isn’t providing effective solutions to the agricultural worker shortage.

The temporary H-2A agricultural guest worker program has created an increasingly cumbersome, outdated and expensive process for farmers that cuts into already slim margins. Some crucial farming industries, such as dairy, have year-round labor needs and are cut out from the H-2A process entirely. Due to these limitations, less than 10 percent of all U.S. farmworkers are on H-2A visas.  

Without much help from the legal immigration system, some farmers have even turned to mechanization in an effort to relieve their worker shortage. But farming innovation does not always come hand-in-hand with a reduction in workforce needs. In the 21st century, farm labor demand has remained steady – or even increased – even as technological advancement on the farm continues.

Given the severity of the agricultural worker shortage, and the lack of effective solutions, it is no wonder that the American agriculture industry has come to rely heavily on workers who lack immigration status. 

These workers contribute nearly $9 billion a year to the fruit and vegetable sector alone. The majority have lived in the U.S. for over a decade, working the same farm for years, building expertise and growing roots in the community.

Yet because they lack legal immigration status, these essential workers and their families are constantly at risk. During a single immigration enforcement raid in Norwalk, Ohio, 90 children were separated from their farmworker parents. A local nursery in Norwalk lost 40 percent of its workforce. That same year, Ohio announced a crisis-level agricultural labor shortage.

That’s why we need immigration reform now. Growers need a better legal immigration system to acquire new workers, and undocumented farmworkers need the security and stability that a pathway to citizenship can bring.

But there are signs of hope. On March 18, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that includes the three platforms reform will need: legalization and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, H-2A reform, and, once the system works again, a means of enforcement. After Easter, the Senate has a new opportunity to take up the bill and pass meaningful immigration reform in the agriculture sector.

A sparse, uncertain and fragile agricultural workforce puts us all at risk. As Congress continues to plan America’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time we put effective immigration and farmworker reform back on the table. Congress must take immediate action to step up for farmworkers, support our nation’s farms and pass needed immigration reforms.

Danilo Zak is a senior policy and advocacy associate at the National Immigration Forum. Follow him on Twitter @DaniloZak.

Tags Farm Foreign worker Guest worker program Human migration Illegal immigration Migrant worker United Farm Workers

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