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President Barack Obama listens to members of Congress for a roundtable discussion about immigration reform in 2009. (Courtesy Pete Souza/The White House)

President Barack Obama listens to members of Congress for a roundtable discussion about immigration reform in 2009. (Courtesy Pete Souza/The White House)

By Mike Gempler, Executive Director, Washington Growers League
I recently saw a movie where the main character had a sticker on his mirror that read: “A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing”.  With that adage in mind, the Pacific Northwest ag industry should examine the potential practical impact of President Obama’s immigration Executive Order.

The Executive Order gives official deferment of deportation and a work authorization to those eligible undocumented persons who apply under two different programs: 1) an expansion of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and 2) and the creation of DAPA, the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability program (for parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, who have resided in the US for at least 5 years).

The potential impact on labor-intensive agriculture appears to be substantial.   However, no one really knows how many ag employees will be eligible for work authorizations as a result of this Executive order.  No one in the industry has made a guess yet, but the United Farm Workers union (UFW) announced that there could be around 250,000 farm workers who will benefit from the EO.  I don’t think the union has any actual data that the industry doesn’t have, but based on the unexpectedly strong response to the DACA program, I think the 250,000 figure is plausible.

For the sake of example, let’s work with that estimate.  The US farm hired farm workforce is pinned at 1,063,000 (USDA Economic Research Service-2012).  The most widely recognized estimate of the percentage of the 1,063,000 who are working without valid documents is 50%, or about 500,000 employees.  250,000 farm workers would be almost 25% of the entire workforce, and 50% of the existing undocumented workforce.  The transition of 50% of the current undocumented ag workforce from undocumented to documented, even for just a three year period, would be a significant decrease in risk exposure for the industry.

For the past several years it has been a common occurrence for ICE agents to show up at a farm or packinghouse with a warrant for an individual who has violated a deportation order.   Frequently, the employee, who has been using false documents unbeknownst to the employer, is a foreman or manager or longtime key employee.  Under the Executive Order, this practice would largely end as enforcement priorities become focused exclusively on non-immigration related criminal activity. Also, a significant portion of the undocumented workers would gain an official deferment from deportation status and be exempt from enforcement.

There are farms in the Pacific Northwest that employ mostly or all local employees.  Most of these employees are settled-out migrants, and because of that it is likely that many of them may be undocumented but also meet the Executive Order eligibility conditions of having been in the US for 5 years and having children who are U.S. citizens.  These farms will likely have their risk exposure reduced more than most other farms by the Executive Order, but the experience of having at least one, and probably more local employees who will be eligible for the Executive Order deferment is shared by almost every farm and packing house in the Northwest.   It also stands to reason that the dairy industry, with its reliance on local year-around workers, will benefit to a larger extent from the Executive Order than farms with largely seasonal employment.

The Executive Order will not create new employees for Pacific Northwest agriculture.  In fact, it may result in some current members of our workforce moving out of agriculture to other jobs, but I think it is likely that Northwest growers and packers will be able to compete in the labor market for foremen, managers and equipment operators.

It is clear that the Executive Order on immigration will not address the needs of agriculture for an adequate, legal, stable workforce.  For that we need immigration reform legislation that includes an improved and flexible guest worker program. Until that happens, the Executive Order can be seen for what it is to the Pacific Northwest agriculture industry: a potentially substantial reduction in exposure to the risk of losing current employees, many of them key people.  After 28 years of inaction on immigration, that, at least, is something.