Also part of the press conference, Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), agreed “on the importance of fixing the nation’s broken immigration system. To do that, we’ll need comprehensive immigration reform. It’s something we’ve been working on for a lot of years and the need is even greater now than when we started.

“From an agriculture perspective … (we must) be sure that we have an adequate agricultural workforce. That’s a top priority for (AFBF).

“About a third of those employed in agriculture – about one million workers – are hired. No one knows exactly how many of these workers are not authorized to work. They have the documents that employers are required to look at. But employers don’t have the capability to verify those documents. That means there are a number of workers at risk if we move forward in this country and put more stringent restrictions in place.”

What does that mean for agriculture?

“Well, (between) $5 billion to $9 billion per year of production is dependent on these workers,” said Stallman, pointing out California accounts for some $3 billion and Florida $1 billion of that total. “Most of that is in specialty crops like fruits and vegetables. But the livestock sector, particularly dairy, is also affected.”

Stallman lamented consumers’ “disconnect with modern ag production (where) they think fruits and vegetables come from the Fruit-and-Vegetable Factory down the road. That isn’t the case: the factory is the farm. The farmer is the producer but he needs workers to plant, tend and harvest the crop to provide high-quality supplies of fruits and vegetables that consumers have come to expect.”

Stallman called for “new, innovative approaches like programs where biometric identifiers can be provided (to guest workers) … who want to, frankly, do the jobs that American workers will not do. It’s absolutely essential for agriculture that in comprehensive immigration reform we address the issue of what happens with the nation’s agricultural labor supply.”

Vilsack, too, pointed out the inability of farmers to hire U.S. citizens for farm work. “While some American citizens step up and take (farm) jobs, the truth is even when farmers make their best effort to recruit a domestic workforce, few citizens express interest. In large part that’s because this is hard, tough work…

“Simply put, our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers trying to do the right thing and make a living. But again and again good faith efforts to fix this broken system – from leaders of both parties – fall prey to the usual Washington political gains.”

Reforms would result in “a reliable, legal workforce,” said Vilsack. Reforms would also:

  • Continue efforts “to secure the borders.”
  • Hold accountable “businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers.”
  • Provide “clear guidance for the vast majority of businesses – including farmers and other employers – who want to play by the rules.”
  • Provide “a path to legal status by which those willing to admit they broke the law will pay unpaid taxes, pay a fine and learn English. Our nation needs a pathway.”