Commentary: Congress nears debate on agricultural immigration


Issue Date: June 20, 2018
By Sara Neagu-Reed and Josh Rolph
Sara Neagu-Reed
Josh Rolph
Farmers, ranchers and their employees have endured an agricultural immigration system that doesn’t work as it should. The California Farm Bureau Federation supports reform of federal immigration programs that addresses the realities of farming and ensures a safe, abundant supply of food and farm products.
Photo/Ching Lee

Next month, for the first time since 1986, the full U.S. House of Representatives may consider a bill to reform agricultural labor and immigration policy. The bill would arise out of ongoing discussions in the House about the need for immigration reform and out of pressure from agricultural groups to be included as part of that solution.

The Senate took up immigration reform in 1998, 2006 and 2013. But in a sign of just how polarized and contentious the issue is, in the past 32 years, the House has never come far enough to even bring a bill up for a vote.

Meanwhile, farmers, ranchers and their employees have endured an immigration system that simply doesn't work, and their frustration is palpable.

The California Farm Bureau Federation supports reform that addresses the realities of farming and ensures a safe and abundant food supply.

The foundations of reform should be built upon two pillars. Most significantly, the law should allow our current, established, highly skilled immigrant employees who have no criminal history to work legally, and not require them to leave their homes and families. Under a "touchback" scenario being debated in the House, employees who lack proper documentation would have to return to their original country before being allowed to apply to a guestworker program—a system that would place undue burdens on employees, their families and their employers.

The second reality is that once farm employees retire or move into other jobs, new employees will be needed. A "future-flow" program should provide a pool of qualified, immigrant workers. Imposing a cap on the number of visas issued through such a program risks placing a needless constraint on the economic growth of agriculture and would lead to further movement of production to other countries.

About a year ago, CFBF conducted an informal survey of California farmers and ranchers, who reported continued problems in hiring enough qualified employees. This past week, we checked with farmers from one end of California to the other, who described how they're responding to the ongoing shortage.

Janet Kister, owner of Sunlet Nursery in San Diego County, said that "in order to continue producing quality flowering plants, we have made changes in the way we do business." The nursery has replaced labor-intensive crops "with plants requiring far less labor." She's also looking to mechanize operations if possible. Many farmers have tried or are trying similar strategies—but none believe crop changes or mechanization alone can end the employee shortages.

In the Central Valley, Chandler Farms in Fresno grows crops such as peaches, plums, citrus and raisins. When asked about his employees, John Chandler said, "These folks are part of the farm family; I like to think that for those families of our workers, the hard work of the parents in the field is the foundation of their children's opportunity to grasp at the American dream."

Chandler has reduced his payroll by half as he mechanized almond production. His frustration lies in "the lack of clarity and stability in national immigration policy and enforcement." He said that has created "unease and challenges across the entire farm labor community that I can see in my own crews."

"The future of affordable food with reliable labor requires that we have workable reform of our immigration policy," Chandler said. His solution: "A functional guestworker program that helps both large and small farms find employees going forward, and some method of legal status for current workers."

To the north, walnut and cherry grower Jim Ferrari, who serves as president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, is exasperated.

"We have reached a tipping point," he said. "We need a guestworker program that will provide the flexibility for foreign workers to work for farms such as mine."

Just up the road from the Ferrari family farm, Lodi-area winegrape grower Brad Goehring said he is mechanizing as many operations as possible, but added that his employees "are very much like family."

In Northern California, 700 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Lassen Canyon Nursery grower and Shasta County Farm Bureau President Liz Ponce grows strawberry plants for commercial growers around the world.

"We've gone from turning away people wanting to work, to taking everyone who showed up, to outsourcing our labor needs to farm labor contractors," Ponce said.

She too said she hopes for eventual automation of labor-intensive tasks, and said pressure on farms would be relieved "if our U.S. Congress could come together and agree on a workable immigration bill."

Goehring said farmers around the state and nation face a heavy burden, should Congress fail to improve agricultural immigration programs.

"Labor is the single issue keeping me awake at night and the largest obstacle for passing off the family farm to the next generation," he said.

Farmers, ranchers and their employees have been waiting 32 years for a more flexible and fair immigration program. California Farm Bureau and other organizations will continue to press Congress for such reform. Watch for FARM TEAM alerts on how you can participate as the debate draws near.

(Sara Neagu-Reed is legislative associate and Josh Rolph is manager of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

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