Uncontrolled illegal immigration has caused rapid change and destabilization in some communities, resulting in resentment, fear, and economic and social challenges. This has resulted in a political backlash fueled by millions of angry people. Congress reacted by proposing a variety of immigration law reform bills. The only kind of bill that has passed to date follows the enforcement-only strategy. Nonetheless, the reality is that the U.S. economy relies on foreign workers to fill millions of jobs, and millions of illegal foreign workers have lived in the United States for ten or more years.

Congress needs to pass an immigration reform law
in the near future that addresses all three key factors: national security; protection of the U.S. economy; and fair treatment of undocumented foreign workers.

Three pillars of immigration reform

1. National security

• U.S. borders and ports—all of them, not just the U.S.-Mexico border—need to be better protected. This means appropriations for additional personnel, equipment, and technology.

• The documents system needs to be tightened up. Right now, in any number of cities, anyone who is able to sneak into the United States (and the borders will never be 100 percent controlled) can buy documents that appear to be genuine. U.S. employers can’t distinguish false documents from authentic documents used for employment authorization. The most common proposal, which exists in more than one bill introduced in 2005-2006, is an electronic verification requirement at the time of hire. This would eliminate the use of truly false identification, but until high-tech flagging is instituted by U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, stolen and borrowed identification would continue to be verified. Such proposals would have a huge impact on the U.S. agricultural work force, and are also fraught with civil liberties concerns. Nonetheless, they appear to have significant support in Congress.

2. Protection of the U.S. economy

Because millions of illegal foreign workers have jobs that U.S. citizens and legal residents won’t or can’t take (mostly because they are already employed), Congress needs to ensure an affordable and flexible mechanism that allows for the efficient matching of foreign workers with U.S. jobs when U.S. citizens and legal U.S. residents can’t be found to take them.

At present, the AgJOBS bill is the best shot at creating such a system for agriculture. It has already passed the U.S. Senate and it has strong bipartisan support. AgJOBS makes the existing H-2A temporary visa guest-worker program for agriculture less expensive and easier to use. It also allows people who can prove that they have worked in agriculture for a period preceding enactment of the bill, and who agree to work in agriculture for approximately another three years, to adjust their legal status to temporary resident and then, after completing the work requirements, to permanent resident. This would allow agriculture to continue to employ most of its existing work force for a few years while making the structural adjustments necessary for widespread use of a guest-worker program.

3. Fair treatment of people who have been working without authorization

While it may not be a popular policy with some Americans, illegal foreign workers who have been filling essential jobs in the U.S. economy, have set down roots here, and have behaved responsibly should be given a way to continue working and living here.

The alternatives are few: 1) Send police door to door to apprehend undocumented foreigners and physically deport them; or 2) Make it impossible for them to continue working through the implementation of a document system backed up by an easy-to-use electronic database. This is the “starve-them-out” strategy (one that would result in skyrocketing ID theft and growth of the black-market economy).

The dilemma is that many of these people have been here working for 15 or more years, own property, and are fully incorporated into U.S. society. Some have children who have graduated from U.S. schools and may not even know that they are here illegally. The U.S. economy has benefited from their work.

One could consider the U.S. government to be complicit in allowing this situation to develop, in that U.S. immigration laws have not been adequately enforced, and no one has complained about the economic growth made possible by the employment of millions of illegal foreign nationals. It is as though the U.S. economic policy and immigration policy were at odds on the surface, but not in practice. Of course, none of this matters if the document system isn’t better controlled.

The impact on agriculture

Whether immigration-reform laws are passed or not, Washington agriculture needs to adjust to a changing labor market for seasonal workers. The U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security estimate that more than 50 percent of the agricultural work force comprises people who use fraudulent documents to get a job.

That may be a low estimate. Passage of new major laws resulting in effective enforcement of U.S. borders and employment documents would therefore require rapid adjustment by U.S. agriculture. Already, with enforcement increases and minor policy changes, the 2006 labor market in Pacific Northwest agriculture was different than in past years. Turnover was unusually high; fewer people were looking for work; there were more frequent instances of workers promising to work, but not showing up; and more employees informed their employers that they don’t intend to return next year. Overall, there was a shortage marked by tremendous competition for workers, with anecdotes of local bidding wars and outright stealing of employees by offering cash payments at the neighbor’s employee housing.

Three actions

Northwest agricultural employers need to consider doing the following three things:

• Build or secure housing, which will be an asset in recruiting employees whether a guest-worker program is used or not.

• Prepare to use a guest-worker program if the prospect of having a full crew in 2007 is poor.

• Support immigration reform legislation that will help Pacific Northwest agriculture utilize the existing work force and provide a flexible and affordable guest-worker program. That means supporting groups like the National Council of Agricultural Employers, which is at the forefront of efforts to pass immigration reform legislation that will work for U.S. agriculture.