Farmers and ranchers need a reliable, skilled workforce. Farm work is challenging, often seasonal and transitory, and with fewer and fewer Americans growing up on the farm, it’s increasingly difficult to find American workers attracted to these kinds of jobs. Farm labor can’t all be replaced by machines either. There are certain farm jobs, like tending livestock and pruning or picking fresh produce, that require a human touch. Where American workers are unwilling or unavailable, workers from other countries have provided crucial support to American agriculture.
Congress needs to pass responsible immigration reform that addresses agriculture’s current experienced workforce and creates a new flexible guest worker program. Instability in the agricultural workforce places domestic food production at risk--increasing immigration enforcement without also reforming our worker visa program could cost America $70 billion in agricultural production.
Farmers and ranchers have long experienced difficulty in obtaining workers who are willing and able to work on farms and in fields. Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and are often transitory. To most U.S. residents seeking employment, these conditions are not attractive. A number of studies document this fact, and farm worker representatives also have acknowledged this in congressional testimony. Yet, for many prospective workers from other countries, these jobs present real economic opportunities.
In times of labor shortages farmers have relied on these foreign workers, who are admitted under a government sponsored temporary worker program known as H-2A, and on workers who appear to have legal status to be working in the United States. The demand for foreign workers is heightened due to not only a lack of a domestic workforce, but also the reverse migration of workers from the U.S. to Mexico, historic levels of immigration enforcement and bipartisan congressional commitment to a credible work authorization system through mandatory E-Verify. Those factors, combined with an increasingly rigid and burdensome H- 2A program, demonstrate the need for a new approach.
Reforms to the immigration system can assure that American agriculture has a legal, stable supply of workers, both in the short- and long-term for all types of agriculture. This requires a legislative solution that deals with the current unauthorized and experienced agricultural workforce and ensures that future needs are met through a program that will admit a sufficient number of willing and able workers in a timely manner. Past legislative proposals (e.g. AgJOBS, HARVEST Act, BARN Act and other bills) have attempted to reform the H-2A program to ensure a future workforce in agriculture. However, it is apparent that those proposals are no longer viable to meet agriculture's needs.
Multiple H-2A regulatory changes and rigid program administration have made use of an already difficult program nearly impossible. A national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H-2A employers under the current rules showed that administrative delays result in workers arriving on average 22 days after the date of need causing an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms that hire H- 2A workers. Costly recruitment requirements result in less than 5 percent of those referred by the government working the entire contract period.
Agriculture needs a program that functions as efficiently as the current free market movement of migrant farm workers while providing the security of a contractual relationship in areas where there is little migration. Having lost confidence in the H-2A structure as a framework for future success, Farm Bureau is seeking the new approach outlined above to ensure a legal, reliable, long-term workforce for all sectors of the industry.
Farm Bureau supports proposals that provide access to a legal and stable workforce for agriculture’s needs now and in the future. First, agriculture needs a new flexible visa program administered by USDA that provides flexibility for employers and workers by allowing contract and at-will employment options to address both seasonal and year-round needs. This ensures future stability and can be used to fill shortages when domestic workers are not available. Second, for short-term stability, the proposal must include an earned legal status for experienced, but unauthorized, agricultural workers.
New Worker Visa Program
Farm Bureau believes that long-term workforce stability will come through the creation of a new streamlined, flexible visa program that follows how the domestic market operates. This program would replace the cumbersome H-2A program. Our proposal would shift management of the program from the Labor Department to the Agriculture Department, putting it where agriculture’s needs are more likely to be understood. Farmers would be permitted to offer workers either contract or at-will employment. All workers would be allowed to continue with an employer for as long as the employer has a need – up to three years. This allows farmers who have year-round labor needs to use the program and avoid disrupting their essential business operations. This program recognizes real-life workforce challenges and provides the flexibility and stability that most domestic workers enjoy.
Adjustment of Status
Farm workers should earn legal status, by following strict requirements. These could include showing proof of steady employment in agriculture, paying taxes, passing a criminal background check and paying a fine. This plan also provides a probationary period requiring individuals to become right with the law.
The reality is that a majority of farm workers are in the U.S. illegally, largely because Congress has ignored the shortcomings of the existing agricultural worker program. It’s time to deal with reality. But farmers must be able to keep their experienced workers – their trustworthy, right-hand men and women who have worked with them for years and can get the work of the farm done. Our proposal offers a tough but fair solution for these workers and their employers. Enforcement is an important part of the solution, but not the whole solution.
Why is Labor Important to Farmers?
Challenges of the H-2A Program
Labor Impacts on Imports
Effects of Enforcement Only Immigration Reform
AFBF Farm Labor Study: Gauging the Farm Sector’s Sensitivity to Immigration Reform via Changes in Labor Costs and Availability