The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Immigration Labor Reform: Agriculture front and center

Immigration Labor Reform: Agriculture front and center

The Food Journal

December 9, 2013

What consumers may not know:

"Most consumers don’t understand the tomatoes they buy were most likely picked by migrant farm workers, probably, on a multi generational farm. Most of our members’ ancestors came here as immigrants. Many started with a fruit stand; and then acquired a few of acres of land, for some that grew to 1000 acres or more. They are living the American dream," states Jason Resnick, VP & General Counsel for Western Growers. "That said, farm labor has always been immigrant labor, and the reason for that is since World War 2 people don’t raise their children to be farm workers to learn a trade or a skill or go to college. Working on a farm is very difficult work. Migrant farm workers come from that kind of work as part of their family tradition. They can come here and make a lot more money doing farm work than doing the same or a different job in their home country. This is not widely understood by consumers." Interview with Jason Resnick, VP & General Counsel, Western Growers

Picking crops is brutal work and even when farmers have raised pay, or even doubled it, in desperate times, workers don’t show up. Consumers need to pick up a tomato and understand it is there because it was harvested by a migrant worker. Responsible immigration reform can help ensure the availability of fresh food that is grown in America. 

What’s happening to the work force? 

According to the Immigration Policy Center, “The majority of farmworkers are undocumented, with estimates ranging from 53% to 75% of the workforce.” Many believe that without immigration reform, migrant workers won’t want to come to the country for fear of being jailed or taxed. Under the current administration, we are seeing historic levels of immigration enforcement after a succession of administrations showing strong and sustained bipartisan support for strengthened immigration reform. Immigration reform wouldn’t lessen enforcement, but rather provide the confidence that there will be an adequate worker supply for agriculture. Connecting the Dots on Immigration Reform - Commentary by Harriet Hentges, Food Retail Sustainability Expert

The Agricultural Workforce Coalition has worked, unsuccessfully, in years past for passage of AgJOBS and other measures designed to relieve agricultural labor needs. Their site explains why action is needed. “A 2012 survey by the California Farm Bureau found that 71 percent of tree fruit growers, and nearly 80 percent of raisin and berry growers, were unable to find an adequate number of employees to prune trees or vines or pick the crop.” 

Improvements on the H-2A Program:

H2A is the current immigrant worker program designed to provide for temporary farm labor. Growers do not think it works for a variety of reasons. According to Mike Stuart, President of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, “H-2A is an extremely difficult program filled with red tape. It’s highly litigious and difficult for producers to utilize - especially those whose harvest seasons are short. For citrus growers who harvest for nine months, it’s more manageable even though it’s still difficult to utilize. However, for the blueberry producer who harvests only six weeks of the year, the costs and other requirements of the program are such that they can’t use it in an effective way. It is a viable program for some - even with its problems – but for many it’s not flexible enough.“  Interview with Mike Stuart, President, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association

A few of the proposed points in the reform would allow for a Blue Card. The "blue card" would allow existing Ag employees to continue working agricultural jobs and be in the country legally and travel to and from outside the country as long as they are working in Agriculture. There would also be the At-Will program allowing designated Ag employers and employees to work without a contract for a period of three years.   

What retailers need to tell their customers – and Congress:

American Farm Bureau Federation’s Director of Congressional Relations Kristi Boswell has stated, "Our farmers out there feel the need for labor reform every day. I think the best thing we can do is get farmers out there talking to Congress and telling them why this is so important." (Farm Futures, 11/13) The same can apply to retailers. If retailers see a decrease in the supply chain come spring 2014, or produce that will have to come from off shore, prices and supply may be a problem. They may have to pass costs and less diverse offerings to their customers. Retailers can also inform their employees about the changing climate of labor reform as it unfolds and make sure they understand agriculture’s needs. The workforce can then effectively convey the situation to consumers who may question the sudden absence of a fruit or vegetable or a price increase. Empowered consumers may then be inspired to let their voice be heard with their elected officials.  

“The entire supply chain understands the importance of immigration reform. There is near-universal support for the need to fix this problem. There is strong support among the American people to fix this problem. It’s the politics around this that makes it difficult,” reiterates Mike Stuart. “Americans understand we need a stable work force and a process to establish that stable work force. We need to fix the law, create the protections that are needed, and do what we need to do to secure the border. Doing nothing about it is allowing a bad system to continue.”