Commentary: Partial immigration solutions could harm farmers


Issue Date: April 1, 2015
By Bob Stallman
Bob Stallman
Farm Bureau will work with Congress to reform the federal immigration system, American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman says, but that reform must include solutions that help farmers and ranchers overcome chronic problems in finding and hiring skilled employees, most of whom are immigrants.

Much of the country outside the West is thawing out from a long winter. Farmers are making plans for the coming season, and in some regions crops are already in bloom. A big question for many farmers is whether they'll have enough workers to harvest those crops.

Well, Congress has been busy making plans too. In the last few weeks, the buzz around immigration has picked up on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, the plans Congress has in mind stop short of what agriculture needs, and would do farmers more harm than good.

The House Judiciary Committee recently pushed forward so-called e-Verify legislation that would require workers to present a more secure form of identification before they could be hired. Congress, in short, seems ready to require stricter enforcement of immigration laws without first repairing the broken immigration system that exists today.

We agree: Worker documentation does need to be brought into the 21st century to secure our borders. But stopping there would cripple agricultural production in the United States.

Effective immigration reform must address our current workforce and create a new guestworker program to meet future needs. Agriculture supports millions of jobs, both on and off the farm. No farmer should have to leave fruit to rot or plow up fields simply because he can't find ready and willing workers.

An enforcement-only approach ignores the rest of our immigration problems and threatens to devastate the farm economy. Farmers and ranchers are careful to follow the federal government's requirements for checking employment documents, and will continue to do so. But e-Verify by itself puts the onus on farmers and ranchers who are already hard pressed to find skilled workers.

The fallout would harm the entire economy. Farm Bureau estimates that food production would fall by $30 billion to $60 billion in the U.S. if the government implements a strict enforcement-only employment-verification system.

As food demand grows, farmers will respond with increased production. The problem is, our current immigration laws all but guarantee it won't be on our soil, because most Americans are simply not willing to take these jobs. Consumers, meanwhile, should expect their grocery bills to increase 5 percent to 6 percent.

Washington has a long tradition of granting special carve-outs and exemptions to laws that fall unevenly on some sectors, but that won't solve the problem we face. Farmers and ranchers aren't looking for an exemption: We need a solution. That solution may not be a quick fix, but it can and must be done.

We need a new, flexible visa program that allows foreign-born workers to enter the U.S. legally. Skilled laborers currently working in agriculture also need a way to earn an adjustment in status and stay working here, on American farms.

Farm Bureau is committed to continuing our work with Congress to reform our immigration system. We must not only secure our borders: We must secure the future of agriculture. Key to getting that job done is ensuring a stable workforce.

(Bob Stallman, a cattle and rice producer from Texas, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

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