The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration held a hearing on Oct. 4 that focused on the agricultural labor crisis and the existential threat American agriculture faces by efforts in the House to pass mandatory E-Verify laws without addressing the immigration status of the current agricultural labor force. Mandatory E-Verify legislation, H.R. 2885, was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 21. Pending E-Verify legislation has also been introduced in the Senate (S. 1196).
Here are excerpts of statements made and testimony presented at the hearing.
“Our current system fails to provide farmers with an adequate, legal workforce due to regulatory hurdles and, for some, lack of access to the program. From Vermont to Georgia to California, farmers have long relied on the assistance of hardworking men and women who travel to the U.S. to work.
“As a senator from a state that prides itself on its dairy products and a long tradition of family farming, it is unacceptable to me that dairy farmers are still being denied access to the H-2A agricultural visa program, which was designed to authorize immigrants to work in agricultural jobs.”
Senator Patrick Leahy
“We believe this is a jobs and food security issue. If, as a country, we fail to find a workable solution to enable labor-intensive agriculture to maintain the necessary workforce, we will see another part of our economy move off-shore where barriers to entry for new agricultural enterprises are minimal.
We need to ask ourselves – do we prefer to have our food produced domestically with the use of some foreign labor or in other countries with foreign labor for all of the jobs?”
Robert A. Smith, senior vice president
Farm Credit East, Cobleskill, New York
“Our analysis clearly indicates that the H-2A immigration program is broken. In 2009, only 86,000 workers were certified for H-2A visa status, which is the only available guest farm worker program. H-2A accounts for less than 5 percent of the hired farm labor workforce. Proposals such as requiring farmers to E-Verify will only add to the problem.
If controls are to be placed on the employment of illegal immigrants by border controls or by enforcement of the current federal immigration law, there must be means by which farmers employ farm labor while avoiding labor shortages.”
Dr. Ronald D. Knutson, professor emeritus
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
“The existing challenges we face in securing a stable workforce will pale in comparison to the devastating impact of E-Verify legislation in the absence of a workable labor program.
“State E-Verify laws are being enacted or considered across the country. The state of Georgia offers a glimpse into the future for the nation if E-Verify were to be imposed without a farm worker program. There, passage of a state law including E-Verify has led to farm labor shortages as high as 30 to 50 percent.
Field workers are simply avoiding the state and Georgia growers and producers may lose $300 million …The economic misery resulting from lost production and lost payroll is also being felt in the community-based businesses that serve farms and farm workers.”
Tom Nassif, president and CEO
Western Growers Association, Salinas, California
“A robust agricultural guest worker program, properly designed, will not displace American workers … In Georgia, even with current high unemployment rates, it is difficult for farmers to fill their labor needs. I encourage you all to work together to develop a guest worker program that is fair to the American employer, fair to the American worker and fair to the temporary guest worker.”
Gary W. Black, commissioner
Georgia Department of Agriculture, Atlanta, Georgia
“Securing the U.S. border, enforcing immigration law in the interior and requiring all employers to hire only authorized workers would have a profound effect on farming operations in this country but not a negative effect, as some have argued … My research estimates that large commercial farms, which are the predominant employers of illegal farm workers, could raise wages by as much as 30 percent and still remain highly profitable, even without passing any of the increased costs onto customers in higher food prices.
”Eric Ruark, director of research
Federation for American Immigration Reform, Washington, DC
“It is time for Congress to pass a practical solution to this problem and to stop the ideological rhetoric that does not match the reality on the ground. We need a solution that severely penalizes farmers who hire illegal immigrants and exploit their workers. But we also need to provide farmers with the ability to transform their current workforce into a tax-paying, English-speaking, legal workforce.”
Senator Charles E. Schumer
“Even in this time of high unemployment, our dairy farmers universally report an inability to find enough American workers … even if they offer better pay than other jobs. Sufficient numbers of local workers are simply not available or not interested in working on dairy farms.
“If Congress is going to enact a nationwide E-Verify requirement, then it also needs to provide agriculture with a workable guest worker program to meet our future needs and a means to allow those who are currently working in undocumented status to be eligible for that guest worker program.”
Jerry Kozak, president and CEO
National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), Arlington, Virginia
“It is simply not possible to replace 1 million professional farm workers who live and work here today without legal status with 1 million untrained legal workers with no experience in agriculture were the E-Verify legislation to become law.”
Arturo S. Rodriguez, president
United Farm Workers of America, Keene, California
“Tweaking H-2A is not the answer. Growers and producers in America need a 21st-century farm labor solution that is more suited to the realities of farming. A program needs to give workers the freedom to move among crops and among employers as most do now.
The program must provide workers needed in the future, and it also needs to provide a worker visa that allows the existing, experienced workforce to continue to work. I don’t see how you can solve the problem otherwise.”
Connie Horner, president
Horner Farms, Inc., Homerville, Georgia