Immigrant Legislation Is Up In The Air
Four years ago, the drive for comprehensive immigration reform peaked with Senate passage of a bill that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants working in agriculture. The bill died in the House. Now, under President Trump, who wants removal of undocumented immigrants, lawmakers are nibbling on the issue again.
Immigration was a signature issue for Trump during the presidential campaign and was on the administration’s list of top issues when it took office. The White House emphasizes border security and deportation of illegal aliens, starting with those with a criminal record or who post a security risk. “Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders,” said the president when he signed an executive order for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There is no appetite in the Republican party to try to go down the comprehensive road again,” says Edward Alden, who handles trade and economic issues, including immigration, at the Council on Foreign Affairs. In a background paper by the think tank, Alden says lawmakers may try a one-step-at-a-time approach to immigration this year, but chances of bipartisan support are slim.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte is putting his attention on reform of the H-2A guest worker program. Goodlatte (R-VA), who chaired the Agriculture Committee a decade ago, sponsored a guest worker bill in 2013 and “remains committed to finding a solution to this issue and hopes to introduce legislation soon,” says a committee staffer.
That 2013 bill called for a new guest worker program, H-2C, that would allow workers to stay for up to three years in at-will employment, including year-round jobs at dairies and food-processing plants.
The H-2A guest worker program, run by the Labor Department, is a regular target of farm groups, who say it is unwieldy, choked with paperwork, and often fails to deliver workers on time or in sufficient numbers for harvest. It’s also a seasonal program of limited use to livestock producers whose animals need daily care year-round. Visas usually are issued for 10 months or less.
“It’s easy to say the H-2A visa program is badly in need of reform,” says Paul Heller, a vice president of Wonderful Citrus, one of the largest U.S. citrus growers and shippers.
Growers understand why Trump focuses on immigration enforcement, Heller said at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, but “enforcement-first or enforcement-only policies will be devastating to our industry,” which relies on foreign-born labor to get crops to market.
Up to 70% of U.S. farmworkers (as many as 1.2 million people) are believed to lack legal status, says Chuck Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and an ag-sector leader on immigration.
“You can’t just take them away” without disrupting farm and ranch production, nor could a new guest worker program funnel into the U.S. enough workers to replace them seamlessly, Conner says.
The State Department issued 134,368 H-2A visas last year, double the total in 2012. There is no cap on visas. The 2013 Goodlatte bill allowed for up to 500,000 new ag worker visas a year.
The ag industry supports an “adjustment of status” for undocumented workers so they could legally work in agriculture. Through the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, farm groups say immigration reform must combine two steps: An opportunity for undocumented workers to obtain legal status and the creation of a market-based visa program that ensures “an adequate, productive, and competitive farm workforce in the future.” The market-based visa program must supply the needs of producers, including those, such as dairy and livestock, who need labor year-round.
In 2014, the Farm Bureau said an enforcement-only approach to immigration would hurt U.S. agriculture. Output would drop by as much as $60 billion if farmers lost access to all undocumented workers, with fresh produce hit the hardest. Food prices would rise by 5% to 6%, it said.
A Path To Citizenship
Minority-party Democrats have filed companion bills in the Senate and House to create a blue card that would authorize the presence of undocumented farmworkers who show consistent employment in the U.S. agriculture for two years, pay a fee, and pass a background check. A three- to five-year path to citizenship would be available to those who continue to work in agriculture.
“The people who feed our nation should be given the chance to be here legally,” says the United Farm Workers union.
House sponsor Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) says the plan would bring farmers and workers “out of the black market.” The bills have limited prospects for passage, given the current priority for deportation and border security.
Ag groups are concerned, in particular, by proposals to mandate use of E-Verify, a database created in 1996 that lets employers check whether applicants are permitted to work in the U.S. Use of E-Verify is voluntary at present for most.
In May, Trump requested $15 million so the Homeland Security Department could begin implementation of a mandatory system. Farm groups want the ag labor problem fixed before the government mandates E-Verify. It’s a practical question, says Conner.
“Your fruits and vegetables are going to be handled by foreign workers. Is that handling going to be done in the United States or somewhere else in the world?” he asks.
Detractors say the database contains too many errors to be reliable.
“We strongly oppose a mandatory E-Verify on employers until a satisfactory immigration path for agriculture is realized,” said California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger at the same hearing where Heller testified.
Growers say labor costs are rising because it is becoming harder to recruit workers.
In some instances, farmers leave crops in the field because there are not enough hands for the harvest. Increased mechanization is the answer, says Wenger.
“If we don’t aggressively invest in the development of new technologies, the consequence will be to lose a large share of our nation’s specialty crop production,” he says.
Row-crop production is highly mechanized. For most fruits and vegetables, hand labor is the rule with famous exceptions for processing tomatoes, tree nuts, and wine grapes.
The mechanical tomato picker succeeded because it was paired with tomatoes bred to be bruise-resistant, easily detached from the vine, and uniformly mature.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) says progress could be made on some immigration issues (agricultural workers, unskilled workers, and H-1B visas for skilled workers) if the Democrats and Republicans could agree to set aside the hot-button issues of legalization or citizenship.
“The trouble is, you can’t get those agreements,” he says. “We’ve never secured the border. We don’t have the credibility to deal with legalization and citizenship and things like that.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.