Agriculture labor requirements and the threat of higher food prices and rising imports took center stage when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed immigration reform during a Wednesday morning press conference. Vilsack argued against smaller, incremental reform as inadequate, saying a “comprehensive” approach is needed.

“We need to stop threatening the competitiveness of our agricultural economy with this broken immigration policy. … I’ve met farmers and ranchers all over this country who are worried about the broken immigration system. They’re unable to find the necessary number of farm workers and sometimes they struggle to verify their work authorization papers. All the while, they wonder if they’ll have enough help for the next harvest,” he said.

Obviously wary of the rancor and divisiveness previous immigration reform efforts exposed across the country, Vilsack also repeatedly called for a “civil” debate.

The Obama administration’s agitating for congressional action on immigration will be welcome news for many in agriculture. Farmers say securing migrant labor too often involves needless red tape and prohibitive time and monetary costs.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture has alsocalled for changes in alien worker laws, saying the current system is “untenable in the long-run.”

For more, see Calls increase for legal migrant worker program “fixes.”

AFBF

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.”

E-Verify

Asked about the likelihood of actual progress on immigration, Vilsack pointed to Congress “considering some legislation focused on an E-Verify system.” E-Verify is an internet-based government program that helps determine if a migrant worker is eligible to work in the United States.

Both Vilsack and Stallman said E-Verify alone will not solve agriculture’s labor issues.

“The E-Verify system creates a potential difficulty, particularly for smaller businesses,” said Vilsack. “That’s because they’d have to invest resources in equipment and training to participate.

“It would give legal workers the opportunity to correct their record. It would be accompanied by a legalization program that would allow unauthorized workers to get right with the law by registering and obtaining documentation if they meet rigorous criteria” including background checks, fingerprinting and other things.

Stallman: “Our concern is that without a legal agricultural guest worker program in place – or without comprehensive immigration reform – you have roughly 500,000 workers out there that, frankly, would be screened out (by) a mandatory E-Verify program. If that happens, the risk of production losses, or production moving outside the country, is very real…

“If you just put in a mandatory E-Verify program, there’s suddenly a huge gap in agricultural that must be filled from somewhere. Otherwise, the crops won’t be planted and harvested. That’s the reality.”

Questions

Asked about comprehensive immigration reform versus something specifically targeting agriculture, Vilsack said farmers need consistency. “It’s important that we have one system and that it be predictable, consistent and understandable. We (must) create a process by which employers – in whatever stage of agriculture production/processing – have some degree of consistency and understanding of what the rules are.

“It’s difficult to know when someone is documented and when someone isn’t. It’s difficult when there are efforts at enforcement that basically disrupt not only undocumented folks but also documented … which we’ve seen in some of the processing facilities.”

Vilsack said the current “broken” system means migrant workers are “unwilling to do what they used to do: travel back-and-forth. They’re actually staying in the country and that creates the issue of what to do with 12 million undocumented folks. The reality is, if you tried to deport all 12 million it would take several hundred years. That isn’t practical.”

What is keeping the Obama administration from providing a temporary fix until Congress is able to act?

Complexity, answered Vilsack. “If you try to do this administratively, there are a number of bureaucratic obstacles to go through. There are a number of ways whatever bureaucratic approach you create can be subject to challenge. Then, you have potential inconsistency of application in various parts of the country. And it doesn’t necessarily address the entire supply chain set of issues that agriculture is uniquely positioned on…

“I’m not sure (the Obama administration) has enough jurisdiction and reach to be able to do that.”

Queried on labor rights and farm workers right to organize, Vilsack said that would be addressed only after immigration reform. “This isn’t a situation where we’re talking about collective bargaining rights. That’s a completely different, and important, discussion. But it isn’t one that fits in comprehensive immigration reform…

“Once that’s created, you can go into a series of questions about the relationship between the employer and employee. And you should. But you can’t get to that point until you have a system that allows people to be legitimately here. We don’t have that today.”

Asked if immigration reform could help with border security, Vilsack cited a list of talking points. Over the last two years, “the president has taken the government’s responsibility to enforce immigration laws and secure borders very seriously. We’ve dedicated unprecedented amounts of resources to our borders; implemented smarter, more strategic enforcement policies. And we’ve had results: borders are more secure than ever, apprehensions along the border reflect far fewer attempts to cross illegally, and the seizure of illegal currency, drugs and guns are dramatically up leading to increased criminal arrests and prosecutions.

“In FY 2010, the (Obama) administration increased the number of convicted criminals removed from our country by more than 23,000. That represents a 70 percent increase over the previous administration.

“We’ve also doubled the number of work site enforcement investigations conducted in FY 2010 compared to FY 2008. These investigations have led to millions of dollars in fines levied against employers for violating laws.  

“We’ve also improved the legal immigration system by reducing the backlog of immigration applications.

“All of that is important and necessary. But the reality is it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to simply secure the border. There needs to be a comprehensive immigration system that deals with the 12 million people here, many working in our farm fields.”

For more, visit whitehouse.gov/immigrationaction.