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The immigration reform needs of Midwest agriculture

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write a paper on immigration issues for Midwest agriculture by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. That paper was released by the Council on Dec. 9. While public discussions of immigrant labor issues for agriculture have largely focused on the needs of specialty crop producers in states like California and Florida, Midwest farmers have unique perspectives on these issues that are not fully addressed in existing legislative proposals.

Regardless of one’s views of the constitutionality of the President’s Executive Actions on Immigration on Nov. 20, it is quite clear that those steps do not directly address the labor needs of the U.S. agricultural sector. While some undocumented farm workers—up to 250,000 immigrants—are expected to qualify for temporary relief from deportation under the criteria established by the President, the actions will still leave farmers in many parts of the country short of the stable labor force they need. More details are needed before it can be determined if the new rules to provide better access to U.S. jobs for foreign graduates of U.S. universities will address the need for skilled workers by agricultural manufacturing firms, many of which are headquartered in the Midwest.

Over the last few decades, the problem has become even more acute. According to data from the annual National Agricultural Worker Survey, between 1989 and 2009 the share of U.S citizens among the farm labor force working in crop production fell to about 30% from about 45%. In the same time period, the share of unauthorized foreign workers has risen to about 50% from less than 10%. No comparable survey data is collected for hired labor on U.S. dairy and livestock operations, but they face similar shortages.

The existing avenue for providing legal status for migrant workers in agriculture, the H-2A visa program, is woefully inadequate. All sides involved, both representatives of farm groups and advocates for farm workers, agree that it needs to be either overhauled or replaced. In particular for Midwest dairy and livestock farmers, the current system does not encompass legal status for workers involved in year-round operations, so H-2A usage in the Midwest is proportionately lower than in other regions of the country. In addition to that limitation, the costs and bureaucratic delays associated with the program have made it unattractive to most U.S. farmers. Typically, fewer than 10% of the migrant farm labor force works under H-2A visas. Any legislation covering immigration issues would have to include a new guest worker program for agriculture that addresses the needs of farm workers, as well as farmers.

Even though it does not perfectly address their concerns, U.S. farm groups—including those from the Midwest—broadly support the farm labor provisions of S.744, the bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June 2013. If Congress can get its act together and pass legislation in both bodies in 2015, Midwest farmers would like to see the following changes to the existing language:

The Midwest region has different farm labor needs than other regions, most notably access to a supply of year-round migrant farm workers to support labor-intensive dairy and livestock farming. With geographic, bureaucratic and visa restrictions hindering access to this workforce, reform is critical for the continued health of agriculture in the Midwest and across the country. A continued stalemate on immigration reform could hurt U.S. specialty crop, livestock and dairy production, leading to increased consumer costs, and greater offshore production of food to be consumed in the United States.

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