Farmers and ranchers have long experienced difficulty in obtaining workers who are willing and able to work on farms and in fields. Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and are often transitory. To most U.S. residents seeking employment, these conditions are not attractive. Yet, for many prospective workers from other countries, these jobs present real economic opportunities. Unfortunately, guestworker programs are unable to respond to the marketplace. This situation makes our farms and ranches less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer. NCFC supports legislative reform that includes both a program to provide access to a legal workforce into the future and an adjustment for current experienced, unauthorized agricultural workers.
NCFC and the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) remain steadfast in our advocacy of immigration reform that meets the needs of all of agriculture and provides a lasting solution to the issue of current and future agricultural labor in the U.S. Agriculture’s crisis must be addressed through legislative reform, which includes an adjustment for current agricultural workers who lack proper work authority. Additionally, agriculture needs a new guestworker program to meet future needs that functions as efficiently as the current free market movement of migrant farm workers while providing the security of a contractual relationship in areas where there is little migration.
It is unclear what path immigration reform will take, but now more than ever we must work together to ensure immigration reform is a top priority for the new administration and Congress. Legislation is critical to address some of the major challenges with the current program, however regulations put in place early in the Obama Administration could be overturned to provide more short term relief to agriculture. NCFC and the other members of the AWC re-affirmed its call for a solution to agriculture’s labor problems in a letter to the Trump administration and continue to meet with members of Congress working towards a solution.
The AWC has put forward three critical components of reform that must be addressed. First, legislation must address the current workforce. With over half of agricultural workers estimated to be undocumented, suddenly losing the majority of agricultural workers would place significant, irreparable harm on not only the agricultural economy, but would negatively impact our economic competitiveness, local economies, and jobs. Every farm worker engaged in high-value labor intensive crop and livestock production sustains two to three off-farm but farm dependent jobs. Agricultural employers must have continued access to trained, high-skilled farm workers.
Secondly, legislation must provide for a market-based mechanism for future agricultural workers. Past proposals have transferred jurisdiction from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture, as the USDA is more knowledgeable on the labor needs of agricultural employers and the impact labor shortages have on the overall agricultural economy. Lastly, this visa program must have the flexibility to meet the needs of producers, including those with year-round labor needs, such as dairy and livestock. Due to the nature of dairy and livestock operations, these sectors have not been able to participate in the current H-2A program. A 2012 Texas A&M study 2012 focused on dairy found that farms using immigrant labor supply more than 2/5 of the milk in the country. Without these employees, economic output would decline by $22 billion and 133,000 workers would lose their jobs.
Several Members of Congress have introduced legislation addressing various components of reforming the current H-2A program or have identified singular issues within the program. The AWC applauds members for engaging in reform to H-2A and ag immigration. However, the bills that have been introduced so far have not addressed all of the components needed to gain support from the agricultural community at large. NCFC and the AWC applauds members for their engagement and look forward to working together to ensure America’s farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a stable and secure workforce now and in the future.
In November 2014, President Obama released a series of Executive Actions on immigration. The two most significant elements for employers involve deferred deportation for certain unauthorized immigrants currently in the U.S. and a change in enforcement prioritization for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
USCIS shifted enforcement priorities to the border instead of workforce raids and I-9 audits, focusing on apprehending terrorists, criminal aliens and illegal border crossings. However, it is likely that under the Trump Administration that these priorities will be shifted back to workforce raids and I-9 audits.
President Trump has already issued three executive orders (EOs) addressing immigration enforcement, with more expected soon.
- Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements (1/25/17) – This order authorized construction of the border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, changed detention policies at the border to end "catch-and-release," and set policy regarding returning those caught at the border to their home country, with provisions to address where foreign countries are unwilling to accept such return.
- Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States (1/25/17) – This order addresses interior immigration enforcement, including federal/local law enforcement partnerships, hiring 10,000 new immigration officers (pending appropriations), beginning the process of blocking federal funds to "sanctuary" jurisdictions, reinstating the "Secure Communities" program for local detention of removable aliens and ended the Obama Administration's "Priority Enforcement Program," and re-setting deportation priorities, including for those charged with a crime but not convicted of that crime. Critics have already characterized this EO as a "blueprint for mass deportation."
- Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States (1/27/17) – This order bans nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) from entering the United States for at least the next 90 days. Those countries were named in a 2016 law concerning immigration visas as "countries of concern." The executive order also bans entry of those fleeing from war-torn Syria indefinitely. The order also calls for a review into suspending the Visa Interview Waiver Program, which allows travelers from 38 countries – including close allies – to renew travel authorizations without an in-person interview.
These executive actions make it only more pertinent that Congress pass a legislative solution to truly fix agriculture’s workforce crisis.