Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

November 4, 2014

ALAS, WE ARE STILL DEBATING IMMIGRATION LAWS

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

These lines taken from the Declaration of Independence describe one of the complaints by the colonists of the United States of America against King George’s tyranny. Alas, we are still debating immigration laws.

With just a few weeks left in the 113th Congress, few expect the House of Representatives to act on immigration reform. The Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) on June 27, 2013 with a 68 to 32 vote. With the House neither acting on this bill nor proposing its own, the Senate Bill will expire at the end of the session. Meanwhile, President Obama has indicated that he may sign an executive order giving temporary deportation relief and work authorization for millions of undocumented immigrants after the November 4th elections. Some Republicans in Congress have suggested that this action exceeds the president’s authorized powers and they may sue the president to prevent the enforcement of the order (Rogers). Alas, we are still debating immigration laws.

Many in the agricultural sector have long sought reform of the current immigration laws in ways that will improve access to guest workers and provide legal status to the current undocumented workers in this sector. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, whose members include the American Farm Bureau, the National Coalition of Farmer Cooperatives, Western Growers, and other producer organizations, is a vocal proponent of immigration reform, stating that there is a labor shortage crisis resulting in economic losses in the sector and for the country.

In 2010, there were 40 million foreign-born residents in the United States, including approximately 11 million undocumented (illegal) immigrants. In the agricultural sector there are an estimated 2.2 to 2.4 million agricultural workers and approximately one-half are undocumented (Martin). Agricultural employers argue that recruiting citizens or documented workers to the sector is extremely difficult, if not impossible. This sizeable number of undocumented workers in agriculture has persisted since the mid-1990s, which was not long after the last reform to U.S. immigration laws (Martin).

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This act provided amnesty to undocumented workers in the agricultural sector and defined the guest worker visa program known as H-2A. Today, agricultural employers find the H-2A program to be cumbersome and ineffective in providing guest agricultural workers. To recruit guest workers under H-2A, employers must prove that there are not sufficient U.S. workers “able, willing, and qualified” to do the temporary or seasonal work. This process requires the agricultural employer to work with the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security, and State. Of the 100,000 jobs certified through this program in 2010, only 64,000 visas were issued (Farm Foundation). Employers with H-2A workers are then required to provide housing and pay a minimum wage rate to these workers. Efforts to reform the 1986 legislation began in earnest as early as 2000 with the introduction of the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (AgJobs). While there was strong bipartisan support for this bill and support from President George W. Bush, the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, led Congress and the Executive branch to focus more on border security and enforcement of immigration laws and less on guest worker programs.

The U.S. Congress was not alone in addressing border security and immigration law enforcement. Indeed, some states felt that the federal government was not doing enough to protect the border and enforce existing immigration laws. The border state of Arizona passed its own immigration law (SB 1070) in 2010, which required state and local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of persons they encounter. Other states, including Alabama, followed with similar laws.

The Senate’s passage of S.744 in 2013 represents the most significant step towards immigration reform since 2000. It was sponsored by the so-called Gang of Eight, which included four Republican senators (Senators Flake, Graham, McCain, and Rubio) and four Democratic senators (Senators Bennet, Durbin, Menendez, and Schumer). This bill, like the 1986 Act, provides a mechanism to allow current undocumented workers the opportunity to work legally and even become citizens. This amnesty provision is opposed by many in the House of Representatives. The bill also proposes to reform guest worker provisions and provide opportunities for flexible multi-year employment in the agricultural sector.

The need for immigrant labor in agriculture is clear. The need for labor in agriculture is as regular as the seasons; when labor is needed, however, is as unpredictable as the weather. Delays in obtaining needed labor by just days can result in losses in the millions of dollars. These losses are incurred not only by producers, but also by all in the value chain. Each worker in production agriculture supports two to three workers in the value chain. An improved, flexible guest worker programs is needed to meet agriculture’s labor needs. Furthermore, there is a need to retain the current undocumented laborers, many of whom have developed specialized skills needed in the agricultural sector. Increasingly, immigrant labor is used year-round in some sectors of agriculture, such as dairy, poultry, livestock, nursery, and meat processing. At the same time, in the interest of national security, steps must be taken to better document immigrant workers in the agricultural and other sectors and control immigration into the country. Alas, we are still debating immigration laws.

 

References

Farm Foundation. The Future of Foreign-Born Labor in Agriculture. Farm Foundation, Oak Brook, IL, July 10-11, 2012. http://www.farmfoundation.org/news/articlefiles/1753-FFBL%20Symposium%20Summary%20FINAL%20Sept%202012.pdf

Martin, Phillip. “Immigration and Farm Labor: What Next?” Choices, 1st Qtr. 2012.

Rogers, Alex. “No Good Options for GOP on Obama’s Immigration Move.” Time, Oct. 30, 2014. (Accessed on November 2, 2014): http://time.com/3546416/no-good-options-for-gop-on-obamas-immigration-move/

 

Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.