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The Ag Agenda

July 2007

It’s Time to Take Immigration Reform Off Hold

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

As I travel the countryside, I hear one resounding echo from producers – We need immigration reform NOW! Growers in the upper Midwest have had to mow down crops of asparagus because of a lack of workers. Strawberries and oranges by the tons have rotted on the ground in the West. Producers everywhere are dealing with class-action lawsuits against them because of the current system’s malfunction.

These hardships aren’t isolated. It’s happening all over the nation. The time is now to pass immigration reform.

$9 billion Out the Door

Agriculture, Michigan’s second largest industry after automotives, is really suffering. It is estimated that Oceana County, the largest asparagus-producing county in the state, has less than 75 percent of its needed workforce. This burden, coupled with the average cost of $36,000 in unsold asparagus for every 100 acres mowed, which some growers have resorted to, has producers hoping they will have enough workers for crops that will be harvested following asparagus.

Farm labor is hard work. Pickers, for example, work in extreme weather conditions up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Their jobs are fluid, causing them to move around the country each crop season with uncertain start and end dates.

I cringe when I hear the criticism that says farmers are taking jobs away from Americans to give to migrant, seasonal workers. Truth be told, most Americans, other than farmers themselves, won’t take farm jobs because of the required intensified labor and job volatility. It’s not that producers are looking for cheap labor, either. Farmers on average pay $10 per hour. Take Michigan asparagus farmers Steve and Julie Dillingham who offer free housing, free utilities and $10-$14 per hour, and still can’t get an adequate supply of workers. Sen. John McCain earlier this year offered $50 per hour to anyone who finished out the lettuce harvest in Yuma, Arizona. He had few if any takers.

Farm Bureau economists estimate that up to $9 billion annually in domestic agricultural production is at risk of being lost if we don’t solve this problem.In layman’s terms, that’s $9 billion that will go to farmers in other countries to produce food to be sent back to the U.S. – food that’s not as fresh, not as safe and more expensive.

Last Train Out

We still have a chance to pass immigration legislation that has been held up in the Senate. While the bill is not perfect, it does address some major concerns of producers. It would provide strong incentives for migrant workers to stay in agriculture for several years, while allowing them to work toward legal citizenship.

The bill also tries to fix the “catch 22” of the current system that requires producers to check papers – yet discourages questions – or face a Homeland Security raid. But, if these producers do question a worker’s papers they could also be faced with a lawsuit. Catch 22.

For example, Evans Fruit, a Farm Bureau member family and third generation orchard operation from Yakima County, Washington, is in a class-action lawsuit brought on by a Chicago law firm that’s seeking millions of dollars in damages. The lawyers allege that Evans Fruit and hundreds of apple growers in the area are conspiring to hire illegal workers, but the farmers are complying precisely with the law – a law that says farmers must accept the documents presented by workers at the time of hire, unless obviously fraudulent.

While the Senate bill is not flawless, it does provide answers to critical problems. If we don’t act now and then lose the chance to improve the bill in the House, it’s possible Congress will not want to revisit the immigration issue for at least another 10 years. This Senate bill is the last train out.

So, the $9 billion question is: Given America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil, do we really want to create the same dilemma by outsourcing the nation’s food supply and, indirectly, compromise our national security? I think the answer for most Americans is ‘no.’ That’s why we can’t wait any longer – it’s time to take immigration reform off hold.