The topic of illegal immigration has again come the forefront. With the recent arrest of an illegal Mexican farmworker for the death of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, national focus is suddenly back on immigration. Trump and other pundits were quick to use the case to push for wider crackdowns on illegals. But even before the Tibbetts tragedy, illegal immigration was under hot debate.
Is it possible to have immigration reform AND retain the laborers that Ag needs? What impacts could immigration reform have on the Ag Industry? What potential changes lie ahead?
Ag Needs Labor
The Ag industry needs labor. It’s something we all know. It’s often the type of physical labor that Americans don’t want to do- but work that immigrants with fewer opportunities are willing to take on. Iowa state Senator David Johnson, who worked at a diary farm for over 20 years, says the state’s dairy and meatpacking industries could not survive without immigrant labor.
Senator Joani Ernst (R) of Iowa knows it too.
“A lot of our agricultural industry does rely on many laborers, and we just don’t have enough of that labor pool in the state of Iowa.”
So naturally, there has been some pushback from the Ag sector on immigration reform. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (R) describes what he hears.
“We’re the No. 1 egg-producing state, and I can’t talk to the egg producers without this being a problem,” said Grassley, a Republican. “With big dairy farms – and they’re getting bigger all the time in Iowa – but even in smaller dairy farms, you hear it. You hear it in the industrial hog production that we have, and then you also hear it from the processing of our agricultural products.”
Many in the Ag sector don’t appear to want big changes because they’re dependent on immigrant labor. Tighter restrictions could mean challenges. According to the National Agriculture Worker’s Survey, which was conducted by the US Labor Department, 47 percent of hired crop farmworkers in the US don’t have the proper authorization to work here. And about 68 percent of those workers surveyed were born in Mexico. A crackdown on illegals could mean a near shutdown.
Reforms on the Horizon
Chris Clayton of DTNPF reports that the latest attempts at immigration reform have come from the House of Representatives. They were pushing a bill for a potential vote this September called the “Ag and Legal Workforce Act,” or HR 6417. It would replace the current H2-A agricultural guest worker visa program with a new one that would allow Ag guest workers to stay in the country for up to three years. The bill was specifically aimed at helping out the dairy industry, which needs laborers year-round. A similar bill failed the House vote a few months earlier, and lawmakers were hoping HR 6417 was tweaked enough to gain enough support to pass.
It turns out that the Ag sector is split on the proposed bill. The American Farm Bureau, the National Milk Producers Federation and more than 200 other agricultural groups backed the bill, but the Western Growers Association oppose it. Mainly because the bill would require employers to use a system called E-Verify.
E-Verify would require employees to register through an electronic system, and since so many workers are here and working illegally already- they fear deportation. The employers also want a level of protection, especially if they’d inadvertently hired illegal immigrants and want to retain them. It requires putting a lot of faith into the system. Would those new visas actually be granted? The Western Growers Association argues that the bill is unfair, and could drive some of these workers even farther into the shadows, leaving them without laborers and their laborers without work.
But as the Trump administration has begun tougher immigration enforcement- especially along the borders- farm groups have been increasingly turning toward H2-A for relief. They need workers. According to analysis from the American Farm Bureau Federation,
In the third quarter of fiscal year 2018, the Department of Labor reported 81,418 foreign workers certified nationally, up 29% from the same period a year ago. If the pace holds, H-2A will fill more than 242,000 positions for 2018, compared to 200,320 for 2017, which was a record year of enrollment for the program.
Senator Ernst acknowledges that even if the HR 6417 bill were to pass and E-Verify were implemented, it wouldn’t be a perfect system. It would be tighter than the current I-9 system, in that flagged workers’ photo identification would be matched with information available from the federal government. But even with E-Verify, fraudulent documents could pass through. So there has been talk of implementing biometric systems, like eye scans or thumbprints.
It appears Ernst wants to find a way to overhaul the immigration system, and still preserve Ag labor.
“We have a lot of great folks who want to work in the United States, those who are trying to do it legally, through our guest-worker program,” Ernst said. “We need to find ways to make that workable for the dairy industry. They need workers. We have other organic farms that need workers. You name it. A number of our hog-growing operations, they need workers. So, we do need to have this conversation and make sure if we are able, if we can’t bring in workers from our own states, if we can’t bring in workers from other states, then we need to look outside of our country for labor. And I’m OK with doing that, but it needs to be done legally.”
“It is a very heated environment, but we have to figure out how to move through that and focus again on the system.”
It’s a fine line. Immigration reform isn’t going to provide any kind of redemption for Mollie Tibbetts. It’s been a campaign promise of Donald Trump’s and a hotly debated topic the past few years. Many in the Ag sector surely hope that no immigration reform will come to pass, some see the need for changes but don’t want to lose the labor. The HR 6417 bill could be an improvement, and help provide a pathway to employment for legal immigrants. But it’s only a start. The Ag sector is largely dependent on immigrant labor, and higher restrictions and enforcement will have big impacts.
Image courtesy of People Magazine.