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Immigration Reform: Why the Agricultural Industry Needs It…Now

Post written by: Leigh Ann Hudec, AU | Line of Business Manager- Inland Marine

legislative reformIf you have been following the upcoming 2016 Presidential election, you know that Immigration reform has been a hot topic among the potential candidates. While the solutions the candidates offer vary, how the immigration system is reformed is critical to agriculture in the U.S.

There are currently more than two million agricultural workers in the U.S., of which it is estimated more than half of them are undocumented. With no plan in place to deal with undocumented workers, farmers will continue to face a shortage of labor. This shortage is further complicated by farmers’ need for both seasonal and year-round workers who are often needed quickly given the perishable nature of their products. Also, it is difficult to find U.S.-born workers willing to take low-paying and often physically demanding farm positions. If farmers are unable to find workers under the current system, they will have to cut back on production, which could result in higher food prices and more dependency on imported food products.

Immigration reform will also benefit the workers who currently fear deportation, work under unsafe conditions and are often victims of wage theft.

One Immigration reform option is House Bill S.744 – Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act passed by the Senate in June 2013. While not perfect, it does address some major issues and is preferred by both farmers and workers over the current situation. This comprehensive bill includes three main elements:

  1. Enhanced security along the Mexico-U.S. border and a requirement that all employers use the Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify system to confirm the legal status of new hires. This provision is to deter the entry of new unauthorized workers.
  2. A 13-year path to U.S. citizenship for unauthorized foreigners who have arrived in the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011 and have been here continuously since their arrival. There is a shorter path to citizenship for youth and farm workers. This would stop the deportation of current illegal workers and allow them to become documented properly.
  3. A new guest worker program to either revise or replace the current H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, which is said to be broken by both farmers and workers. This will help with hiring and properly documenting future foreign born workers as well as help improve the working conditions of farm workers.

Without reform, farmers will continue to struggle to find enough workers to harvest their crops or tend to their livestock. This will ultimately lead farmers to either move to less labor intensive products, such as grain, or cut back on how much they produce. This reduction in production will lead to higher food costs, an increase in imports, and potential food safety issues. Being unable to fill farm positions affects non-farm U.S. workers also as it has been estimated that each agricultural worker supports two or three other non-farm jobs.

Workers benefit from reform as once properly documented and no longer fearing deportation, they will be able to speak up against employers who are not following labor laws pertaining to overtime, safety and working conditions. Additionally, they will be able to participate in the economy more fully.

Immigration reform is a controversial issue. But one thing is certain; a lack of comprehensive reform will hurt the agricultural industry and will ultimately affect us all.

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