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Immigration is a Tough Job Despite Ag Support

It’s not the life that Shaun Duvall envisioned when she moved with her husband to the scenic small town of Alma, Wisconsin, in 1980. She was looking forward to enjoying the view from their home overlooking the majestic Mississippi River and perhaps teaching French for a few years.

In 1984, she was offered a job teaching high school Spanish. “A few years later, Extension ag agent Carl Duley came to me and asked if I’d be willing to help with translation issues between farmers and their new Mexican workers,” Duvall says.

John Rosenow was one of the first farmers to meet with her. In 1997, he and his wife, Nettie, had expanded their herd and formed an LLC with another farmer. They found it increasingly difficult to find help, and they hired their first Hispanic employees in 1998. “Labor always had been a limiting factor in Wisconsin,” he says. “Having a new source of workers was the beginning of the transformation of the dairy industry here.”

By 1999, Duvall and Rosenow had formed a nonprofit called Puentes/Bridges, Inc. ( She organized a trip to Mexico in 2001, accompanied by Rosenow and a handful of other farmers, to visit the home villages of their employees. Duvall quit teaching in 2004 and formed SJD Language and Culture Services to work full time with dairy farmers and their employees in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Ten years ago, only 5% of workers on Wisconsin farms were immigrants. By 2008, that figure jumped to 40%. The Rosenows employ nine.

“They’re excellent workers and so much more capable than what we could find before,” he says. “They won’t leave unless they find good workers to replace them while they’re gone.”

Chris Weisenbeck, a Durand, Wisconsin, dairy farmer, agrees. When two Mexican men came to his farm looking for work in 1998, he was hesitant, but he needed reliable workers. After hiring them, he eventually traveled to Mexico with Duvall. About 150 other farmers have followed suit.

“I’ve been to the villages, and there’s no work,” he says. “They’re glad to work here. It’s frustrating as an employer to have very capable workers who have difficulty with their papers and getting driver’s licenses. I’d like legislators to understand the problems we’re having.”

There’s little evidence that Congress is listening. Hopes were raised in 2013 when the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill, and the House passed a few bills out of committee. Late last year, Rebecca Tallent, a veteran immigration advocate, was hired as the House speaker’s immigration adviser. Then reform efforts stalled out.

The issue of a pathway to citizenship is the most controversial provision. Yet, a recent poll from the Pew Research Center reveals that Hispanics feel it’s more important to work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation than to gain a path to citizenship: 55% to 35% (see graph).

While politicians in Washington, D.C., continue to spar about immigration reform, farmers and farmworkers are left to fend for themselves on the front lines.

Immigrants work across ag sectors

Foreign-born workers have a long history in the U.S., harvesting fruits, vegetables, and horticultural crops in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and other states.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was an effort to help legalize the farm workforce. It imposed sanctions on employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers and also legalized 2.7 million unauthorized workers, including Special Agricultural Workers.

“If we look at post-1986 immigration reform, legalized workers moved rapidly out of ag and were replaced over time by unauthorized workers,” says Neil Conklin, Farm Foundation president.

Changes in farm structure and ag technology also precipitated a shift in the U.S. hired workforce. In the decades that followed, immigrant labor gained ground in almost every sector of U.S. agriculture, particularly large-scale livestock operations. A National Agricultural Workers study reveals that in New York, 70% of dairy workers are Hispanics from Mexico, 24% are from Guatemala, and 1% are from Honduras.

Today, the Agricultural Workforce Coalition estimates there are 1 million to 1.5 million hired employees in U.S. crops and livestock. About 60% to 70% are working illegally.

“We’re increasingly dependent on foreign-born labor,” Conklin says. “Ultimately, we have to resolve the issue of how to handle the status of these workers. It’s important to the U.S. economy and to agriculture.”

This was underscored when unauthorized immigration slowed in response to the 2007 recession. New state laws aimed at immigrants in Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia exacerbated the situation. Ag employers in Georgia reported $300 million losses in harvested perishable crops in 2011 because of worker shortages. The Obama administration also began stepping up deportations, reporting a record 400,000 deportations in fiscal 2012.

“Our biggest worry is labor – or the lack thereof,” says Jim Bittner, Singer Farms, Appleton, New York. “If Washington cannot get the immigration mess fixed, we’ll need to take a serious look at lower-labor crops. A number of fruit and vegetable growers have already made the switch to corn and soy from cabbage and apples.”

Impact of immigration reform on prices, production

Labor is farmers’ third highest expense, accounting for 17% of production costs for the sector. It rises to 40% to 50% for more labor-intensive crops, including fruit, vegetables, and horticulture.

A new report commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation suggests that agricultural labor reform focusing only on immigration enforcement would raise food prices over five years by 5% to 6% and cut U.S. food and fiber production by as much as $60 billion. Fruit production would be the hardest hit, plummeting 30% to 61%, followed by a decline in vegetable production of 15% to 31%. Livestock production would drop by 13% to 27%.

An alternate reform scenario including immigration enforcement, a revised guest worker program, and the opportunity for skilled ag laborers to earn an adjustment in status would have little effect on food prices, and less than a 1% impact on farm income.

An unprecedented number of farm organizations are supporting immigration reform. A workforce willing to labor for relatively low wages and benefits would keep domestic food prices low and help farmers remain competitive in a global market. 

“We need more workers and an avenue to get them here,” says Michael Johnson, a Fountain, Minnesota, farmer. “Dairy farming is year-round. We definitely need reform.”

Other reform advocates, like Rochester, Minnesota, physician assistant Mike McMullin, want to protect immigrant well-being and improve work conditions. He and his coworkers offer services to 14,000 patients per year at the Migrant Health Service.

“Hispanics show up for work when they’re sick or injured because they don’t want to look weak,” he says. “They don’t complain. I see them only after it affects their productivity and safety. The real answer is addressing the documentation issue head-on and trying to improve it.”

According to a 2010 report by the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center (NARD), the average crop worker earns about $9 per hour and works just under 200 days per year. Only 18% of crop workers have health insurance; immigrants aren’t eligible under the Affordable Care Act.

NARD advocates these three major goals:

1. Provide farm employers with sufficient legal workers on terms that keep U.S. agriculture competitive.

2. Provide protections for current and future hired farmworkers to ensure they receive adequate wages and safe working conditions.

3. Increase opportunities for foreign-born farmworkers to return with savings to their countries of origin or to stay in the U.S. and move up in the labor market.

“Agriculture is an entry-level job for undocumented workers,” Conklin says. “If the ag workers legalized in 1986 had stayed in the sector, fewer undocumented workers would be working today.”

Mexico currently is undergoing an upturn in manufacturing, and fertility rates in Latin America are declining.

“This is likely to reduce the availability of these workers in the U.S,” he says. “We have to look at fundamentally changing what we do in agriculture to continue to attract workers. We can’t expect a steady flow of workers willing to take hazardous, dirty jobs at relatively low wages.”

Farmers need to step up their efforts. “Most producers I work with show a level of sensitivity by seeking help,” Duvall says. “Many travel to Mexico. That’s a quantum leap. They may put a little extra into human resources, beef up housing, or pay for English classes if it’s economically possible. It doesn’t cost anything to greet Hispanic workers daily. It’s a cultural thing that means a lot.”

Michael Johnson attended a Finding Common Ground Forum at the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center in Minneapolis earlier this year. He gathered resources to help the six Hispanic workers on his family farm, Trailside Holsteins. (Download a PDF of the Forum summary at

Johnson, 28, and his wife have packed gift boxes with photos of their employees, local Minnesota products, and toys for their employees’ children in Mexico.

“Family is really important to them,” he says. “They’re very close-knit. At our farm meetings, we encourage them to bring photos of their family members. They seem to appreciate it, and we hope it makes their situation easier.”

The issues of immigrant culture, language, and acceptance in rural communities are real. “Rural people lack exposure to other cultures,” Duvall says. “I’ve seen people grow and change, be more welcoming, and less threatened.”

It’s an adjustment for coworkers, too. “I sat down with my employees, said it would be a good experience, to embrace it, and carry that attitude into the community,” Rosenow says. “I won’t tolerate stereotyping.”

Tailor reform

If legislation gains traction, it may be limited to a piecemeal approach instead of a broad, sweeping overhaul.

“We need reform tailored to different needs,” Duvall says. “Most want to work here a few years and then go home. Others want to come and go, using a work permit or an 11-month visa. Maybe it’s capped at five to seven years, and authorities run checks on it. For those who want to be citizens, 10 to 15 years is too long to start the process. Illinois has a driving permit that only requires proof they’ve lived at the same address for six months.”

A Pew Research Center estimate based on government data indicates 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the U.S. in 2012. “If there’s no reform this year, I don’t see it until 2017,” says Frank Gasperini Jr., National Council of Ag Employers.

Duvall doesn’t see an end in sight for her work.

“Interpreters are a dime a dozen,” she says. “I offer a teaching focus. As I interpret, I interject understanding, and that’s needed by workers and farmers.”

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