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Immigration reform advocates revamp efforts

For agriculture, it's a matter of sharing message that U.S. imports either food or labor.

Politics have gotten in the way of passing immigration in Congress, and a new grassroots effort is hoping to get ahead of the 2017 legislative window and begin putting a local face and economic data on display when it comes to making a case for the need for reform.

The Partnership for a New American Economy, a public relations effort supported by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), released 51 new economic research reports (one for every state plus Washington, D.C.) and launched the Reason for Reform campaign to showcase how immigration affects local communities all across America and the urgency of modernizing the nation’s immigration system.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the pressing need for immigration reform is a hot topic on the campaign trail, but the issue is more than just a soundbite throughout this country. Every year, farmers face difficulties getting workers in a timely matter, and the current H-2A process is riddled with unnecessary application denials and administrative delays.

“Worker shortages have placed our nation’s food supply at risk. Increasing immigration enforcement will cost the country $60 billion in agricultural production unless we do something now about increasing the supply of guest workers. We cannot let this nation’s harvest rot in the fields,” Duvall said.

He said a more flexible visa program is in order, and in the meantime, those workers who are undocumented need a pathway to remain on the farms that need them.

“Regardless of the rhetoric this political season, a working immigration system is foundational to the economic health of American farmers, rural communities and the broader U.S. economy. As these new state reports demonstrate, our local, state and national leaders must move beyond political posturing and work to make immigration reform a reality in 2017,” said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers. “As part of any commonsense plan, provisions granting legal status to existing farm workers and creating a new, more workable and market-oriented visa program to ensure a future flow of labor for American agriculture should be included.”

Western Growers represents nearly 50% of all fresh produce produced in the U.S., and most operations use foreign labor and farm workers because it is difficult to mechanize picking produce and to assess the ripeness and readiness for harvest. Nassif said he’s seeing 20-40% labor shortages. Farmers have had to increase wages, only to compete against each other for the same number of laborers without adding any to the workforce.

Nassif added that the arguments have stopped that undocumented workers are taking away American jobs. He said foreign workers will be harvesting the crops; it’s just a matter of whether it will be done here domestically or somewhere else.

For agriculture, both Nassif and Duvall said it’s a matter of whether to import food or labor. “I think people want food grown here,” Duvall said. Although agriculture is a net exporter of food, the current trade balance shows that an increasing amount of fruits and vegetables are being imported, and the category has a negative trade balance.

The Senate previously approved a bipartisan compromise immigration bill, but the House was unable to get anything passed that would allow for a path to conference and settle differences between the two chambers. The members of AWC said they hope this new effort helps provide a bipartisan focus from the bottom up about the importance of the need for reform.

As an example, Nassif said if politics were removed and a bipartisan group of former and current governors were able to begin discussions on the social and economic burden of not acting on immigration reform, it might be a starting point for Congress.

Learn more at www.ReasonForReform.org.

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