Commentary: Immigration coverage should include improved law

Issue Date: March 14, 2018
By Dave Kranz
Dave Kranz
The start of spring harvests for crops such as cherries, above, may give an early indication of the extent of ongoing employee shortages in agriculture. Long-term demographic and economic trends have triggered the shortages. Employers wonder whether the immigration-enforcement dispute between the state and federal governments—and coverage of the dispute—might discourage immigrant farm employees from reporting to work.
Photo/Ching Lee

When does perception become reality? Farmers in the northern San Joaquin Valley may find out in a few weeks, as harvests of springtime crops such as asparagus and cherries begin.

The question is this: Will the ongoing dispute about immigration enforcement between the federal government and the state of California—and the media coverage of the dispute—discourage immigrant farm employees from reporting to work in fields and orchards?

The inter-governmental dispute turned more heated last week, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California, charging the state with interfering in efforts to enforce federal immigration law. The legal action—and state officials' forceful reaction to it—enhanced an already-intense media focus on California agricultural employers.

Reporters have focused on agricultural employment since the start of the year, when new California law began requiring employers to demand a warrant from federal immigration-enforcement agents. Among its other provisions, the law says employers can't allow immigration agents to access employee records without a warrant or subpoena, and must give employees notice within 72 hours if immigration authorities inspect I-9 employment-eligibility forms.

Because farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesses have been forthright for many years about the fact that most of their employees are immigrants, the media have devoted much of their coverage of immigration issues to agricultural employers and employees. That, in turn, has presented both challenges and opportunities as Farm Bureau responds to media inquiries about immigration enforcement and policy.

The pace of media interest in agricultural employment topics picked up after Donald Trump was elected president, and intensified further upon his inauguration. About that time, news outlets began reporting more frequently about employee shortages on California farms—and reporters often made the assumption those shortages could be traced to Trump administration policies.

On many occasions, we have explained that the shortages relate to a number of factors: increased border security dating back to Sept. 11, 2001; economic improvements in Mexico that have compelled fewer people to leave the country in search of work; the aging of the employee population; and similar economic, educational and demographic factors.

Have Trump administration enforcement policies worsened the shortages? That's where the perception-versus-reality question comes in. Certainly, the atmosphere has changed. Certainly, the news media have paid much more attention to immigration issues than it did in past years.

But have the administration's discussion of enforcement—and intense media coverage of it—led to deeper employee shortages on farms and ranches? It seems logical that it might, but it also seems hard to separate from all the other factors that have made this such a high-priority, chronic issue for agricultural employers.

So far, from what Farm Bureau can gather, most of the enforcement activity in agricultural regions this year has come at facilities such as packinghouses and processing plants, and in rural communities, rather than on farms and ranches. The enforcement has certainly been disruptive for those businesses—and the new state law has added obligations about how they must respond to that enforcement.

In the flurry of coverage generated by the federal lawsuit against the state, a reporter asked if Farm Bureau was encouraging its members to comply with federal law or state law—on the assumption that it wasn't possible to do both. We responded that Farm Bureau always advises members to comply with all local, state and federal laws, and that we provide guidance on how to do so. (For advice on how to balance state and federal employment laws, see the Farm Employers Labor Service website at

Media coverage of immigration issues has also provided Farm Bureau with a chance to discuss how to resolve the problem: by creating a flexible, practical agricultural-visa system that works for agricultural employers and employees, now and in the future.

When reporters call us to ask about employee shortages or about the federal/state enforcement dispute, we make sure to point out the need for federal law that allows people to enter the U.S. legally to work on farms and that accommodates immigrant farm employees already in the country.

We notified reporters about the late-February trip to Washington, D.C., by a Farm Bureau-sponsored group of farm employers and employees, who went to talk about immigration policy with members of Congress. The media advisory generated coverage around California, describing how employers and employees both recognize the need for an agricultural-visa program better than what's in place now, and more practical than what Congress has been considering.

The coverage wasn't purely positive—some reporters questioned why farmers don't hire more American citizens, in part by offering higher wages. An anonymous email to CFBF demanded that farmers hire homeless people.

But farmers and ranchers have long experience in answering those questions. Efforts to hire local residents have been generally unsuccessful; agricultural work requires certain skills and attributes; mechanization of farm tasks would be only a long-term and partial solution that could prove out of reach for small-scale farmers and constrict rural job opportunities.

For all those reasons, an improved agricultural-visa program remains key in assuring the sustainability of U.S. farms and ranches. That's a message worth repeating in responding to questions about immigration enforcement.

(Dave Kranz edits Ag Alert and manages the California Farm Bureau Federation Communications/News Division. He may be contacted at

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