CFBF President's Message: It’s time—past time—to fix our broken immigration system

Issue Date: October 18, 2017
Paul Wenger

During the last few months, we have certainly seen some unbelievable occurrences throughout the United States, from flooding in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico to wildfires throughout the West, capped by the rampant fires we have seen devastate our North Coast region and other parts of California. Farmers and ranchers have shown their resiliency by adapting to and recovering from challenges like these for years, and once again they will rise from the floodplains and from the ashes and build successful businesses. That's just in their DNA and their make-up.

Though farmers and ranchers have always had to deal with the unpredictable ravages of Mother Nature and other things beyond our control, some of the things that challenge agriculture are within our ability to influence. But to do that, we need to engage. The issues of overregulation, water supply and reliability, and water quality are just a few of the issues we have continued to work on during the 20 years I have served as a California Farm Bureau Federation officer.

One of the issues that often seems to be within our grasp, yet always comes up short, is the issue of immigration reform. We have frequently expressed to those in power in Washington, D.C., that our immigration system is broken and that no matter what pay rates our farms or ranches offer, U.S.-born employees will not perform the seasonal work that many California farms must offer. Not since 1986 has there been any congressional action on immigration reform, and it's long overdue.

Farm Bureau continues to advocate for immigration reform that will protect our borders while providing safe passage to and from their home country for people who want to come here and work on our farms and ranches. In support of that advocacy, we conducted an informal survey of farm employers in 2012, to see how many were experiencing difficulty in finding agricultural employees and how they were dealing with those shortages. This year, we conducted another survey to see what was happening on our members' farms and ranches, and if the need for farm employees had diminished at all.

What we learned in this most recent survey is that farmers and ranchers continue to experience shortages of qualified applicants for employment on their farms and ranches (see story). Where possible, many farmers have invested in new, labor-saving technologies to do the work that used to be done by people. But for many crops, such as soft fruits, inventors have yet to produce a highly successful way of mechanization to replace the eye-hand coordination of a human being. This has also led to farmers switching to crops that are less labor-intensive and can be readily mechanized.

Congress today is considering immigration reform once again, and certainly President Trump has raised the bar on this discussion by including the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, as part of any greater immigration solution. Time will tell if this is good or bad. But the case has certainly been made by a number of organizations, from the American Farm Bureau to those of us in California, that no matter what the pay scale there are very , very few in the domestic labor supply who will do the work of agriculture.

We need to have an immigration system that will allow people to move from south to north and then return home again when the work is done.

As this year's floods and fires have shown, so much that challenges farmers and ranchers today is truly beyond our control, but we have the stubborn determination to face these challenges and continue on, even in the face of devastating adversity. One of the things that we farmers and ranchers must do, however, is to exert our combined influence in the political process.

We need to influence it in such a way that those we send to Sacramento and Washington understand that they have the ability and the responsibility to influence public policy that will help us in time of adversity. It is unacceptable to think that those who are in office and have the ability to solve these problems continue to debate, discuss, and do nothing.

The time for action is now. One thing is for sure: If Congress fails to rise to the occasion to get this accomplished, it will say little for those individuals who are in a position to do something about it.

Luckily, we have some elected leaders who appreciate the uniqueness and importance of California agriculture and understand that farmers have chronic difficulty finding people who want to be employed in agricultural labor. Those representatives are working on our behalf—but we have to work on our own behalf as well.

We have to make the calls and make the visits to be sure that everyone in Congress understands that the time to fix our broken immigration system is now. We must engage with the same resourcefulness and determination we use to overcome natural calamities to influence those decisions that are well within our reach.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.