Friday, June 17, 2011

Immigration reform essential for ag


Farmers and ranchers face a shortage of workers who are willing and able to work. Reforms of the immigration system must assure that American agriculture has a legal, stable supply of workers, both short- and long-term. This includes attracting a sufficient number of competent, willing and able employees; allowing the recruitment and hiring of non-resident agricultural workers when the need is demonstrated; and allowing an opportunity for some current non-resident agricultural workers to apply for legal resident status.

American agriculture faces a shortage of workers every year. A Farm Bureau economic analysis concluded that $5 billion to $9 billion in annual production is in jeopardy if the employee shortage cannot be met. Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and often transitory. To most U.S. residents seeking employment, these conditions are not attractive. Yet, for many prospective workers from other countries, these jobs present real economic opportunities.

Employment of those who are in the U.S. illegally is a violation of federal law and consequences for employers can be severe. Effective reform must begin at the border, with greater efforts to prevent the entry of illegal non-residents. While employing illegal non-residents is a violation of law, determining the legal status of prospective employees can be difficult, if not impossible, for growers. An employer is strictly limited in what he or she may ask of prospective employees to determine if they are authorized to work. If the employer requests more or different documents than allowed by law, or more than the original documents provided by a prospective employee, then the employer could be subject to a Department of Justice investigation or a lawsuit for unlawful discrimination.

When domestic workers cannot be found, agricultural employers may recruit and hire temporary foreign workers under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. But the H-2A program is bureaucratic, expensive, does not cover all parts of agriculture and does little to encourage grower participation. It requires employers to provide free housing and transportation from a worker's home country and to pay a base wage rate that is historically well above market levels, making it expensive. The program properly requires employers first to recruit domestic workers before bringing in foreign guest workers, but it unreasonably favors domestic workers even after the H-2A workers arrive and begin to work.

Reform of U.S. immigration law is essential for U.S. agriculture. The Farm Bureau has supported comprehensive immigration reform legislation and endorsed bills that came to the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2007. In the end, only reform through legislation can solve this problem. In seeking a meaningful legislative solution to agriculture's worker shortage, the Farm Bureau believes that comprehensive immigration reform must include an effective, usable, foreign worker program.

Frank Priestley is the president of the Idaho Farm Bureau.

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