Immigration order minimal effect on agriculture

Agricultural groups hope for Congressional cooperation that can truly tackle immigration concerns that impact agricultural sector.

Thursday night the President moved forward on executive orders to address issues within the current immigration system, which he said he needed to do as Congress was unable to agree upon any action itself.

The most notable change offers deportation protection from immigrants who have been in America for five years; have children who are American citizens or legal residents; and who register and pass a criminal background check and pay back taxes.

The total number of immigrants this could impact could be as high as 4 million, but for agriculture it’s just a fraction at potentially 250,000 farm workers. For agriculture, of the 2 million hired immigrant employees, 60-70% are unauthorized to work, even though they show employers documents that appear genuine.

American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said in practical terms, AFBF doesn’t expect the president’s initiative to help America’s farmers deal with the real labor challenges they face.

“Our nation loses millions of dollars in fruit and vegetable production every year because farmers cannot find labor to harvest everything they grow. This order will not change that,” Stallman said.

Chuck Conner, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives chief executive officer, said regarding the announcement that “for what appears to be a small subset of current agricultural workers, the President’s actions will alleviate some pressure in the short term but does not offer these workers, their families, their communities or their employers the long term assurance they deserve.

“To mix metaphors, we as a country should not bring people out of the shadows only to let them twist in the wind,” Conner said.

The current H-2A Guestworker Program continues to be riddled with problems and also doesn’t offer a workable solution to address year-round labor needs. Modifications to this program or similar agricultural worker programs should streamline the program to better serve all agricultural commodities - including livestock, National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn said in its weekly newsletter Nov. 20.

Conner explained, “To meet future agricultural labor needs, the H-2A program remains broken beyond repair and a new, streamlined and market-based visa program is needed. Both of these goals—certainty for current workers and a working visa program for the future—can only be achieved through congressional action.”

Reform to the U.S. immigration system is important to many in agriculture. For instance, NCBA has policy supporting efforts to strengthen border security which they feel is a first step to ensure any immigration reforms will be meaningful.

This summer the House passed H.R. 5230, which would have authorized the deployment of the National Guard to the southern border, and ensured U.S. Customers and Border Protection had access to federal land near the border. The bill was not taken up in the U.S. Senate.

An effective border security bill should be passed immediately, and it should accept that securing our borders is an ongoing and continuous commitment, said Western Growers president and chief executive officer Tom Nassif.  “While we need effective metrics for demonstrating progress, there is no ‘completion date’ for securing the border. Holding immigration reform hostage to arbitrary and momentary assessments of the border situation should be rejected,” he said.

Finding common ground

Nassif said some in Congress will argue that the president’s action must be met with a legislative response to block bad policies, but preventing the implementation of executive actions alone is not enough.  “These actions by the president should also serve as a catalyst for Congress to lead by passing meaningful immigration reform legislation,” Nassif added.

Nassif said Western Growers will oppose any piecemeal legislative package that fails to put the agriculture industry at the front of the line. “Our industry is in jeopardy. We expect no less than specific solutions that address problems unique to our industry.”

Stallman added, “Congress has a golden opportunity to present a clear vision on immigration in America. We need legislation that addresses border security and enforcement, improves an outdated agricultural visa program and gives experienced agricultural workers a way to gain legal status.”

Over the next few weeks, the spirit of cooperation and consensus building will likely be in short supply on both sides of the partisan divide. “A debate over the process used to enact these immigration changes, even when loud and emotion filled, will ultimately be healthy for our democracy,” Conner added.

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