Ag labor expert pessimistic about congressional action
As politicians in Washington, D.C., fight over the provisions of an immigration reform package intended to also address the problems farmers face with the availability and cost of field labor, Florida growers are becoming increasingly frustrated and pessimistic that a workable solution can be found. That's the judgment of one of the state's veteran agricultural law experts, who requested anonymity in order to be able to provide his frank assessment of the complex issue. Its underlying reality poses a daunting prospect for farmers, he said. If advocates of strong border security are able to force inclusion of a strict eVerify provision for guest workers in the legislation that is passed, but do so without a fully thought out ag worker program that addresses current problems with the H2A visa program, he said, "that will be a disaster in terms of the availability of agricultural labor."And, he added, the complicating factor is that in truth, a strict eVerify requirement is the only way to secure the border and halt the flow of illegal immigrants. It is an open secret, he said, that as many as three-quarters of the seasonal field workers in Florida are here illegally. "So if eVerify is put in place, but the whole system is not also fixed, farmers will not be able to use those people anymore," he said. "And that would be a disaster." Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator at Florida Farm Bureau in Gainesville, and Mike Carlton, director of labor relations at the Maitland-based Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, which has been a major participant in the ongoing discussions with Congress and United Farm Workers, agreed with the expert's assessment. An enforced eVerify requirement and a failure to replace a badly broken H2A program with a better solution for farmers "would be devastating," Hendren said. "And to some extent, we have already seen that in states like Georgia, where we've seen farmers with crop losses of as much as 50 percent because they cannot secure enough labor to harvest their crops." Hendren is concerned that disguised within political catch phrases such as "border security" is a focus on eVerify without a thorough understanding of the risks to growers when it comes to readily available seasonal labor. "I'm not sure that all legislators appreciate the importance of having a good visa program at the same time," she said. "That point sometimes gets lost on the rhetoric." Carlton said he and FFVA share Hendren's concern. He also cited what he said is a key practical detail in finding the right solution. "If we have a strict eVerify program, the current H2A program simply will not be able to handle the number of people we would have to bring in and be able to verify," he said. "That's why it can't be fixed. It has to be replaced with a new program that makes sense and will work." The good news, Carlton said, is that based on his direct knowledge of Congressional negotiations, he does not think lawmakers would pass a strict eVerify-based program that does not have a good ag worker component. "I just don't think that particular combination of elements would go forward," he said. The anonymous expert, however, does not fully agree with Carlton and Hendren that the H2A program is too dysfunctional to be overhauled successfully. "But in its current form, it is very, very difficult for farmers," he said, noting that it inflates labor costs and is an administrative nightmare. "But replacing it entirely would cost a fortune and also just create a new bureaucracy," he says. Based on his assessment of the current situation in Washington, he said, he is not very confident that a genuine solution to the overall ag labor problem can be found. "If I were forced to bet, I would bet against them coming up with such a solution," he said. "The reason is that this Congress can't agree on anything. If one side is for something, the other side is automatically against it. So I just think the two parties are not weighing the merits of the issue so much as they are whether they are a plus or minus for them politically." As a result, he said, more and more farmers are growing so frustrated they are giving up hope of a solution. "And that's why I'm seeing more farmers already leasing out their land and saying let someone else do the growing," he said. "Or they're just selling their farms as real estate." Hendren and FFB are not seeing such a spike in farmer frustration, although she agreed that the consistent and affordable availability of field labor is a growing concern. Given such stakes, she said, she is confident that Congress will ultimately come up with a fairly good ag worker program under the banner of immigration reform. "My colleagues and I, and the farmers we talk to, remain optimistic," she said, "because there has not been this level of discussion of the issue of ag labor in years." Carlton said he, too, is guardedly optimistic that Congress will come up with viable legislation that assures an ag labor force. "My confidence level depends on the day I'm being asked," he said. "It fluctuates continuously. But I am reasonably optimistic that a solution can be found that can come out of a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills. The real fighting is over things like border security and a path to citizenship. But when it comes to an ag worker program, I think there will be agreement in the end." The Senate will soon begin debate on its immigration reform bill. The House has not yet formally taken up formal discussion of its bill.