President's message: Agricultural immigration policy needs real reform that works

Issue Date: February 7, 2018
Jamie Johansson President California Farm Bureau Federation

When I started my farm in 1993, it was with a naïve idea that I could finally determine my own course. It's a romantic notion of go-it-alone individualism, dreamed by many of us who have punched a time clock at work—a notion that lasted for about 351 days, and then it was time to harvest.

The first harvest on my farm required 20 skilled individuals to capture the window in time that avoids under-ripe or overripe olives being culled, which eats into a farm's profit. My 351 days of going it alone ultimately came down to 20 people helping me realize my dream.

After 25 years of farming, my goals for the farm are more realistic and depend heavily on other people. And therein lies the frustration with discussions around an agricultural immigration bill in Washington, D.C. It simply fails to recognize the large number of people who contribute to an agricultural system the rest of the world envies and which provides global benefits.

President Trump has stated a goal of achieving 4 percent GDP growth. An aggressive legislative agenda pursued by the president and congressional leaders has resulted in tax reform that will increase productivity-enhancing investment, and aims to encourage huge investments in our country's infrastructure.

However, there is one economic pillar missing: the people who want to do the work, and who we need to do the work.

A bill called the Agricultural Guestworker Act, or AG Act, has found its way into Securing America's Future Act (HR 4760), a Republican-sponsored package that includes border-wall funding, internal immigration enforcement and a legislative solution for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

DACA eligibility numbers have substantially increased the last few months, with the president signaling he would be willing to see as many as 1.8 million people allowed to stay and continue to work in this country.

At the same time, the AG Act, addressing U.S. visas for farm employees, would cap the number at 450,000—a number that fails to account for the 1.5 million people working across this country to put food on our plates.

The AG Act essentially ignores the needs of California agriculture, where our farms and ranches alone depend on an estimated 460,000 people—the great majority of whom are foreign born—to harvest our crops. The people working on our farms and ranches have gained technical skills, and show a future commitment to agriculture that should earn them an opportunity for an adjustment of status.

Failing to address the status of the existing agricultural workforce represents a problem not only in California, but across the country.

Requiring our current employees to "touch back" to their original countries in order to gain legal status in the United States, as the AG Act requires, would force people to leave families, jobs and communities behind. The history of the flawed U.S. immigration system would leave them with no reason to believe that departing to participate in a new visa program would allow them to return.

As we've learned the last 25 years after several attempts for an agricultural immigration solution, the politics are fraught with problems, from procedure to ideology to partisanship.

In recent years, as demonstrated by the so-called "Gang of Eight" proposal in 2013, the Senate has shown more willingness to address the issue. Its bill passed by a bipartisan supermajority, but was never even considered in the House.

These days, the momentum has shifted to the much more conservative House, where late last year, the House Judiciary Committee adopted the AG Act, which would sunset the H-2A program by creating a new H-2C program for agriculture.

From a certain perspective, H-2C looks pretty good: It would shift authority from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture, remove H-2A housing and transportation barriers, and include a much higher cap than in the Gang of Eight bill.

But the AG Act requires employers to begin using the E-Verify program to check eligibility, which could disqualify more than half the agricultural workforce, and doesn't provide a workable way to fix this problem.

If we are going to have a serious discussion about achieving 4 percent GDP growth, we must grow employee productivity and grow the workforce. I've seen estimates that to return to a 4 percent growth rate would require an additional 25 million people entering the workforce across all sectors.

With the administration's recent success in passing a legislative agenda that puts America on track to achieve this objective, now is not the time to ask agriculture to shrink its workforce.

We applaud the fact that Congress has put agricultural labor reform on the public agenda, and we welcome the national dialogue this creates. It's imperative for us as a nation to recognize that true economic growth and food security can only come when we address one of the most significant issues facing farms.

Without a realistic policy solution—one that addresses current employees and ensures a future workforce—there will be damage across farming regions that sends shockwaves throughout our economy, as billions of dollars in agricultural production is lost. Farmers, their employees, people throughout the food chain and, most importantly, American consumers, would lose.

You can count on us at the California Farm Bureau Federation to continue to promote a commonsense policy that convinces the president and Congress of the need for real reform.

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