Recently, the nation watched as people with differing views, who can never seem to agree on anything, set aside their differences and took action to respond to a crisis that is rocking our economy and threatening lives across America. It got me thinking about the labor crisis in agriculture and the various groups that seem to never be able to agree on a solution.
Consider this: MSNBC recently ran a documentary series titled, “What’s Eating America.” The first segment explored labor, immigration and the vital role that “undocumented, migrant and visa workers” are playing in our food system. A Washington-based nonprofit, Save Family Farming, also produced an excellent short video providing a very personal glimpse into the benefits of the H-2A program, for both workers and tree fruit growers. (See MSNBC video at www.msnbc.com/am-joy/watch/-what-s-eating-america-tackles-immigration-food-industry-more-78863429505. See Save Family Farming video at https://savefamilyfarming.org/guestworkers)
While I’m partial to the Save Family Farming video, I was struck by how two groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum are saying the same thing. It is what farmers have been saying for a long time: Without immigration reform that allows the H-2A visa program to thrive, labor-intensive agriculture in the U.S. will face serious contraction in the next decade.
Consider these statistics: In 2002, the U.S. exported $6 billion in agricultural products and imported $9 billion. Not too bad. Fast forward to 2018, when imports nearly tripled to $25 billion, while U.S. exports stayed essentially flat at $6 billion. How do we address this terrible trend?
The U.S. House of Representatives started the ball rolling last December with the passage of H.R. 5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill is significant because it is the first time in 20 or 40 years — depending on whom you listen to — that the House passed immigration reform affecting farmers.
On the plus side, the bill would create a program for legalizing farmworkers that lack legal status. On the minus side, the bill did not provide a workable future flow guest worker program for labor-intensive agriculture.
Members of the Senate had reportedly been working on an immigration bill for farmers to consider this year, but, given the current focus on the coronavirus, the future of that effort is unclear. Since we’ll most likely be starting over on agriculture immigration reform in 2021, it will be important that we remember past mistakes.
We have all seen this picture before. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Like H.R. 5038, it had a broad legalization program and an equally unworkable future flow program, essentially today’s H-2A program.
Many farmers — especially on the West Coast — ignored H-2A because IRCA did little to stem the tide of undocumented immigration, and those workers were plentiful. In fact, based on the conclusions of many who have studied the issue, IRCA may have unintentionally promoted undocumented immigration. H.R. 5038 would have addressed this by requiring farmers to transition into mandatory E-Verify. Gulp.
If there’s one thing we must learn from IRCA, it’s that the preservation of labor-intensive agriculture depends on an affordable and workable future flow program.
What was wrong with the future flow provisions of H.R. 5038? In the Pacific Northwest, housing and wages are on the top of the list. Farmers in our association need to recoup a portion of the investment they make in safe housing through a nominal daily charge. They also need a modification in the structure of the federally mandated inflated wage so that all farmers in the state pay the same wage. Those provisions were not in the House bill. For others, the bill’s extreme expansion of legal liability was the backbreaker.
If H.R. 5038 was so flawed, why did some farmers and agricultural associations support it? The reasons varied. If you are a dairy producer, you have no program, and anything is better than nothing. Other groups think they will never have a need for guest workers, and therefore legalization of the current workforce is the crucial element. Finally, some groups thought it was more important to urge bipartisanship in the House, knowing the Senate would draft its own bill more focused on a workable guest worker program.
In the ensuing months, coronavirus has reared its ugly head, and after that, elections loom. Unless something really crazy happens, it will be up to the next Congress to start the process again. Next year, I am hopeful that agricultural groups will speak with one voice and demand a workable — and affordable — future flow program. Lawmakers need to recognize that a thriving H-2A program is critical for the survival of agriculture in America. If the MSNBC crowd and farmers can agree on the urgency of immigration reform, then there’s hope for farming in America.
—by Dan Fazio
Dan Fazio is the CEO of wafla — a Washington-based nonprofit association committed to the well-being of growers in the Pacific Northwest and the largest H-2A provider west of the Mississippi.