U.S. agriculture faces a critical shortage of workers every year, as citizens are largely unwilling to engage in these rigorous activities and guestworker programs are unable to respond to the marketplace. This situation makes our farms less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms is essential to agriculture and to the U.S. economy.
Ag’s Labor Needs
Agriculture needs a balanced, sensible approach to immigration legislation that reflects the challenges agriculture faces daily. To most U.S. residents seeking employment, working in agriculture is not attractive. For prospective foreign workers, these jobs provide real economic opportunities. That is why farmers need to be able to keep their experienced workers.
Without immigration reform, many farmers throughout the U.S. would remain extremely shorthanded in planting, growing and harvesting crops, and raising livestock – and the same is true for farmers in Pennsylvania.
From Pennsylvania’s perspective, key segments of the agriculture industry – dairy and mushroom operations, for example – cannot take advantage of the current H-2A program because they have year-round labor needs. And, for the segments of the agriculture industry who can utilize the H-2A program – such as fruit and vegetable operations – they face a costly and burdensome program that is often difficult and even impossible to utilize successfully. In fact, 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.
This is an issue that has the potential to impact farms of all sizes and segments of the agriculture industry. Without a legal, farm-skilled workforce, we risk losing a large part of our domestic agriculture production. In fact, it is estimated that $5 to $9 billion in annual production is in jeopardy without workers in the field. Ultimately, a failure to secure a stable, legal workforce through immigration reform means importing more food and agricultural products from foreign countries and more U.S. farmers going out of business – hurting rural communities.
E-Verify is a computer system operated by the federal government to determine job applicants’ work authorization. Requiring agricultural employers to use E-Verify without assuring that a workable guest worker program is in place could have a significant, negative impact on U.S. farm production, threatening the livelihoods of many farmers in labor-intensive agriculture.
The Immigration and Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) made it unlawful for employers to hire or employ individuals not authorized to work in the United States. Since that time, employers have been required to use the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Form I-9, which is completed by job applicants who submit the form to employers with specified documents that testify to their identity and work authorization. IRCA, however, prohibits employers from questioning the documents offered by applicants, and any employer who questions the documents offered by job applicants or refuses to hire based on reasonable-appearing documents can be sued, not only by the job applicant, but also by the Department of Justice. The Department of Agriculture website explicitly advises farmers that “Employers must accept any of the documents or combination of documents listed on the back of the INS Form I-9 to establish identity and employment eligibility.”
As a result of these policies instituted 25 years ago, use of fraudulent documents by workers has become prevalent, in agriculture and elsewhere. There have been bills introduced in the past that would mandate that employers use E-Verify and phase in the requirement over several years. More importantly, the legislation contains no worker program for agriculture – either in remedying problems with the H-2A program or in instituting any additional program to assist agricultural employers. If the mandatory E-Verify program goes forward by itself, without providing producers a source of legal workers, it would present a potentially insurmountable challenge for many agricultural employers. Farm Bureau economists estimate that agricultural production would fall $30-60 billion and food prices would rise five- to six- percent if Congress passes enforcement only reform (including border security, interior enforcement and e-verify).
Farm Bureau could support a mandatory E-verify if: 1) the employment eligibility verification system is simple, conclusive, and timely; 2) provides an affirmative defense for employers acting in good faith; 3) allows for status adjustment of workers not authorized prior to implementation; and 4) be preceded by full implantation of a usable agriculture worker program.
Farm Bureau asks Congress to support immigration reform that addresses American agriculture’s needs today and in the future. Specifically, Farm Bureau believes comprehensive immigration reform must include the following:
Agricultural Worker Program
The uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program (AWP) will ensure agriculture’s future legal workforce. The AWP allows both employer and employee choice and flexibility by including two options:
- “At-Will” Visa employees have the freedom to move from employer to employer without any contractual commitment, replicating the way market forces allocate the labor force now.
- Contract Visa employees commit to work for an employer for a fixed period of time, giving both parties increased stability where it is mutually preferred.
In order to minimize the impact on current economic activity, Farm Bureau supports an adjustment of status for experienced but unauthorized agricultural workers who currently reside in the U.S. This adjustment should include the following components:
- These workers have a future obligation to work for a number of days annually in agriculture for several years.
- Upon completion of this future work obligation, the workers could obtain permanent legal status and the right to work in whatever industries they choose, including agriculture.
Farm Bureau also asks Congress to oppose any mandate on employers to use E-Verify, including H.R. 1147, until an acceptable agriculture worker program that allows work authorization for workers not authorized currently is in place.
Contact: Government Affairs, 717.731.3585, firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: March 2016