For more than a decade the produce industry and agriculture partners have made an overwhelming case for legislation to reform our broken immigration system and help build a legal and reliable workforce. While Congress has come close several times to addressing this issue, fear and politics have always intervened. Our industry must have a twofold labor solution – a pathway to legal status for our valued undocumented workers already engaged in agriculture, and a new guest-worker program to bring in skilled ag workers to do jobs that Americans are just unwilling to do.
United Fresh Position
What's at Stake
The reality of our farm labor force is that most are foreign-born and as many as 75 percent are undocumented. In addition, this population is aging, without replenishment. Indeed, the number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers in the U.S. fell by at least 146,000, or more than 20 percent, between 2002 and 2014. The drop in workers has been blamed in part on the 2008 recession, but also on increased border security, which has made it more difficult for farmworkers to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico to see their families. A report from the Pew Research Center found that 140,000 more Mexicans left the U.S. than those that came here between 2009 and 2014. Most of the 1 million Mexicans who returned to Mexico in that period listed “family reunification” as their reason for returning.
Bottom line: Americans won’t do crucial field jobs, current workers are age-ing out and fewer foreign-born workers are coming to the U.S. On top of all that, the H-2A program, the only legal avenue for bringing in agriculture guestworkers, is barely functional.
The produce industry must convince the current Administration that legal status for current farm workers and developing a better guest-worker program —not just tightening the border — needs to be a priority of any immigration reform. An enforcement-only or enforcement-first approach, in which the emphasis is on deportations and border security, will cause irreparable damage to our ability to get crops from the field to consumers.
A solution that solves the problem must get two things right. It must deal constructively with how to retain the current experienced workforce in agriculture. And it must provide a modern, streamlined, functioning, and more market-oriented system for future guest workers to come, contribute their talents and leave when the work is done.
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