Lack of immigration reform stifles ag output

Lack of immigration reform stifles ag output

Four hundred groups urge fix for outdated immigration system.

THE Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform in June, and although the House has passed five separate pieces of legislation addressing immigration shortfalls, the sentiment has started to shift in the House toward also taking a more comprehensive approach.

With the August recess and budget fights, it may be October before the House truly tackles broader reform legislation, but advocates for immigration reform are trying to keep the issue in the spotlight.

The White House is upping the pressure for comprehensive reform with the release of a report outlining the economic benefits to agriculture and rural America.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted, "There is momentum for this. There is a desire to get this done. There is an alignment of interest groups you don't normally see."

"A lack of labor will, today and into the future, result in a decrease in agricultural production, outputs and exports, which will cost farm income and jobs," Vilsack said, adding that it is "important for Congress to finish its work this year."

Last week, a coalition of 400 major U.S. businesses and advocacy organizations — including groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Meat Institute, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, International Dairy Foods Assn. and American Feed Industry Assn. — called on House leaders to enact legislation to fix an immigration system that is "completely incapable of being responsive to an ever-changing national economy and hypercompetitive global marketplace."

The groups said they have been engaged with many members of Congress on numerous components of a modern immigration system and sent a letter urging Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Cal.) "not to let this momentum slip and progress vanish."

"Failure to act is not an option. We can't afford to be content and watch a generation-old immigration system work more and more against our overall national interest," the letter warns. "Instead, we urge Congress to remain mindful of the clear benefits to our economy if we succeed and work together ... to achieve real, pro-growth immigration reform."



In a media call highlighting the White House report, Vilsack said the new analysis draws on a series of reports and surveys from within the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as outside sources.

The report defines the problem, which Vilsack noted is that of the 1.1 million full-time farmworkers, nearly half are noncitizens. Of new entrants, perhaps three-quarters are not here through proper legal means (Figure), Vilsack noted. Although the workforce issue affects the fruit and vegetable industries more, it is also a growing issue in the crop, dairy and livestock sectors.

The report states that during 2007-11, there were an average of 505,000 noncitizen farmworkers (including both authorized and unauthorized) in the U.S., representing 43% of all crop and livestock farmworkers. In California, such workers represented fully 73% of the farm workforce.

Over this period, noncitizens filled more than one-quarter of farm jobs in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Virginia.

Conservative estimates suggest that roughly 60% of the entire nation's noncitizen farmworkers are unauthorized, the report notes.

In the report, a stimulation model suggests that over the long run (15 years from now), an expansion of the magnitude contemplated under the proposed agricultural temporary worker program could result in a 2.4% increase in fruit output (with exports growing 3.4%) and a 5.4% increase in vegetable exports, relative to the base forecast. Dairy output could rise 0.6%, which could provide a 4.6% increase in exports, and meat output could increase 0.6%, resulting in a 3.8% jump in exports (Table).

According to an economic analysis by Regional Economic Models Inc., an expanded H-2A visa program — like the one found in the W-3 and W-4 provisions of the bipartisan Senate bill — would raise gross domestic product by approximately $2 billion in 2014 and $9.79 billion in 2045.

"Coupled with a decline in native-born rural populations, the strength and continuity of rural America is contingent on commonsense immigration reform that improves job opportunity, provides local governments with the tools they need to succeed and increases economic growth," a statement from the White House noted.

Vilsack added that comprehensive immigration reform will improve employment security and working conditions for everyone, provide a fair marketplace for producers who play by the rules and stimulate population growth in rural communities.

The report, available at, provides an excellent state-by-state comparison of the impact of immigration reform as well as the current noncitizen workforce.

For example, Vilsack explained that California has 81,000 farms that bring in $34 billion in sales for the state per year. However, 73% of their workers are noncitizens, and a majority of those are unauthorized.

In the short term, eliminating immigrant labor could result in agricultural production losses of $1.7-3.1 billion annually in California. However, if the Senate's new agricultural H-2A program is approved, it could create nearly 9,500 jobs.

Even for states that do not have the same scope of fruit and vegetable production, the impact is still considerable. Vilsack used South Dakota as an example: It has 31,169 farms that generate $6.6 billion in total agricultural sales, and while only 10% of its farm workforce is noncitizen, losses still could total $8.3-15.0 million if immigrant labor is eliminated.

Lack of immigration reform stifles ag output

Long-run (year 15) effects of expanded agriculture temporary worker program on output and exports compared with base forecast (approximated Senate bill parameters)

Agriculture sector

Output, %

Exports, %







Greenhouse and nursery



Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, cashews, pecans)



Grain for livestock feed



Food grains (e.g., wheat, rice, soybeans)



Oilseeds (e.g., sunflower, mustard, poppy)



Sugar crops






Grass seeds






Miscellaneous crops












Miscellaneous livestock



Source: White House, using Economic Research Service data.



Volume:85 Issue:31

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