Washington’s farms and ranches reached a record value of production for crops and livestock in 2008. Agriculture accounts for more than 12 percent of our state’s economic production. Washington State leads the nation in the production of 11 commodities, including apples, pears, sweet cherries, red raspberries, and hops. Agriculture is Washington State’s number-one employer, providing jobs for nearly 250,000 workers.
While these statistics remind us that Washington State’s farmers are providing jobs for our residents as well as the highest quality food for the world, farmers are hindered by an extreme and chronic labor shortage. Most American workers are either unable or unwilling to perform agricultural jobs.
When labor shortages exist, employers are permitted to request foreign guest workers. The current agriculture guest-worker program, the H-2A, is unworkable and continues to price U.S. farmers out of the market. When American agriculture is priced out of the market, it leaves us dependent on imported food, much as we are dependent on imported oil. Is that what we want? The overriding challenge facing American agriculture today is to develop a stable and productive work force composed of legal workers.
Against the backdrop of federally legislated immigration measures, it is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to assemble a work force. In the past several seasons, the lack of an adequate, stable, and legal work force has diminished the quantity and quality of our output. Important preharvest jobs are being performed late, and crops are harvested past their peak, if at all. Experts tell us that the chronic labor shortages will get worse before they will get better.
The current Congress was supposed to consider a Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill (as Congress was supposed to do in 1987 and each year since). For the last eight years, President Bush pushed, prodded, and cajoled Congress to give him a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but to no avail.
We are a nation, more than any other, with a tradition of welcoming immigrants. Immigrants, who come to the United States seeking economic opportunity and personal freedom, are the lifeblood of our nation. But, we are also a nation that deeply respects its laws. As both President Bush and President Obama have stated numerous times, we can be both a welcoming nation and a nation that respects the rule of law.
Washington State farmers, for our own financial survival, must demand that the current Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform. This reform needs to:
Provide a satisfactory assimilation of approximately 10 million undocumented workers who are already here. They are here because Congress has failed to act
Establish a straightforward system that allows workers to legally come to the United States to do farm work. It would give farmers the ability to bring workers from outside the United States to perform jobsskilled or unskilledwhen a U.S. citizen is not available to do the job.
Contain provisions that do not shift the burden of policing the legal status of a potential worker to the farmer.
In the last three decades, since the social reforms of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society resulted in fewer Americans working as migrant farm laborers, it has become more difficult to find adequate workers. Comprehensive immigration reform, passed by Congress, must provide immediate relief to U.S. agriculture.
Farmers, packing operators, and food brokers desperately need comprehensive immigration reform this year. Failure by Congress to enact this sorely needed reform would deepen our dependence on imported agricultural products (mainly from third-world countries where there is little oversight by government to ensure food safety) and could transfer high-tech jobs out of our country. It could also threaten the security of our nation’s borders.
We must put aside our political and personal differences. We need to come together on this issue. Let us not forget American farmers and ranchers who are providing food and fiber for our beloved country and the world.
Brody is an orchardist in Pateros; Wyss is president of the Okanogan County Horticultural Association.