A KEY component of any comprehensive immigration reform for agriculture is a new agricultural guestworker program -- something reiterated last Tuesday in a hearing held by the House judiciary subcommittee on immigration and border security.
In questioning from committee members, many witnesses said Congress essentially left farmers with no choice but to hire illegal immigrants under an H-2A program that many claim is cumbersome and designed to fail.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the current H-2A agricultural guestworker program is "costly, time-consuming and flawed" and added that it compels those who must use the program to pay an artificially inflated wage rate.
"Instead of encouraging more illegal immigration, successful guestworker reform can deter illegal immigration and help secure our borders," Goodlatte said.
He said he supports replacing the H-2A program and implementing new policies that will bring illegal agricultural workers "out of the shadows" as a first step in the process of overhauling the nation's immigration system.
Bob Stallman, president of American Farm Bureau Federation, testified on behalf of the newly created Agricultural Workforce Coalition that one component of a workable solution is a new market-based system administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that eliminates bureaucracy and provides job portability for workers.
Stallman said "for better or for worse, agriculture has acknowledged that between 60% and 70% of agricultural workers are falsely documented," and any new program will take time to be implemented fully.
As such, Stallman said granting work authorization to existing experienced agricultural workers is a crucial part of avoiding economic dislocation. If 70% of the labor force was lost, Farm Bureau economists estimate that production losses could reach $9 billion per year or more.
He suggested authorization requiring a minimum commitment to agriculture for a five-year set term, after which workers could access immigration channels to adjust to a permanent status or continue to work in agriculture under the Ag Card.
National Chicken Council president Mike Brown testified on behalf of a broad coalition of food manufacturers about the need for a stable and permanent workforce that can help sustain the rural communities in which meat and poultry facilities operate.
In his testimony, Brown highlighted five major themes for immigration reform on which the coalition is focused:
1. Border security;
2. A simple improvement to the E-Verify system as an alternative to a national identification card;
3. Clarity on anti-discrimination laws;
4. An occupational visa category the meat and poultry industry can use that could be tied to local or regional employment, and
5. Options to effectively address the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S.
"Some think there is an economic incentive for manufacturing employers to hire illegal immigrants at below-market wages," Brown noted. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Our industry needs a stable workforce. We seek workers who will stay on the job long enough to become skilled and efficient, helping us to keep our food products and employees safe."
When Goodlatte asked if meat processors would use a new guestworker program, Brown responded that the needs of the industry require more permanent employees, but a new visa category for 24-36 months could be beneficial.
In terms of strengthening employment verification, Brown noted that the government does not provide employers with a reliable verification method to prevent identity fraud and confirm whether new hires are legally authorized to work in the U.S.
"E-Verify is a step in the right direction but does not work adequately in its current form," he explained. "If strengthened, this program will serve as an effective and efficient 'virtual border.'"
Brown said employers currently cannot determine whether employee names and Social Security numbers match. He added that if E-Verify is made more effective, "our industry will use it 100%."
Chalmers Carr, president of South Carolina-based Titan Farms who grows 5,000 acres of peaches and 700 acres of vegetables, testified that labor shortages are causing the decline of domestic fruit and vegetable production.
He said 50% of the fruits and 20% of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. are now grown outside the national borders. The Food & Drug Administration estimates that 15% of the average daily diet consists of products grown or processed outside the country.
Carr testified that another FDA report shows that, of all the vegetables imported into the U.S., less than 1% are actually inspected.
"Imported vegetables are three times more likely to be contaminated with foodborne pathogens and four times more likely to have been treated with pesticides exceeding the standards of domestically grown produce," he said.
"It is evident that our food supply is going to be harvested by foreign workers, whether in this country or abroad. I would rather see this country admit foreign workers and be able to grow, harvest and pack our food supply on our fertile American soils under our regulations than to import our food supply from abroad," Carr concluded.