As bipartisan Congressional support for immigration reform gains momentum, the ongoing and critical issue of a consistently available work force for farmers is at the center of the debate.
The end result of the difficult process could be a long-awaited boon for growers or a disaster.
That’s why a new national organization, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, has been formed to aggressively address the issue. Founding members include the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and the group’s efforts are strongly supported by Florida Farm Bureau and Florida Citrus Mutual, and Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association.
And despite political gridlock that has so far prevented the passage of a new farm bill, Congress is listening, with Florida members taking a leadership role in the discussions.
“For me, it’s always been about listening to my farmers, because my district is now mainly agricultural,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a former member of the agriculture committee who now sits on the agricultural appropriations committee. “So on this issue, I feel like I am in Washington on behalf of the farmers I represent. So whatever plan comes out has to be acceptable to them.”
Rooney and his colleagues from the Florida delegation, including fellow Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio, and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Dennis Ross, have been actively engaged in discussions with AWC and other agricultural organizations.
There is now broad consensus that a readily available field labor force is essential to the country’s food supply and therefore a national security issue, said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations at the FFVA and a regular participant in AWC’s Washington meetings. “But it has taken a decade to educate Congress as to the unique nature of the agricultural work force and the problems we have.”
Rooney said he is now relatively confident that immigration reform efforts will deliver badly needed practical improvements for farmers.
“The best outcome I can see, based on the current discussions, is that we get reforms to a guest worker program, which will allow us on the flip side to do something like eVerify to make sure that the people who are here are the ones who are supposed to be here and that out guest workers are also contributing to taxes,” Rooney said. “Then they can come and go as they please. They can make money and go home, without feeling like they’re breaking the law. And then farmers can feel like they can employ a work force without fearing the government is going to crack down on them.”
Under the current system, farmers who want to legally employ immigrant laborers must either participate in an existing but deeply flawed H2A guest worker program or administer workers under I-9 forms.
At the core of the current debate is the need for a new or significantly revised guest worker program that does not incur the costs or administrative burdens of H2A program.
And finding the right balance carries risks, Rooney said.
“My idea of a worst-case scenario would be that an enforcement mechanism like eVerify is put in place, without a guest worker program,” he said. “And then you’ll see what we’ve already seen in places like South Carolina and Georgia, where farmers are being told they can’t have this labor, but they can’t find anybody else that will do the job. At that point, we wouldn’t be able to get crops picked and to the table. And that would be a national security issue.”
Michael W. Sparks, CEO and executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual and another participant in the AWC’s Washington campaign, concurred with that assessment.
“I absolutely could not agree more,” he said. “It would be devastating to U.S. agriculture and especially devastating to Florida.”
Unless reforms seriously address the concerns of growers and create a system that makes workers consistently available, Sparks said, the recent problems that have plagued farmers in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama as a result of state-level crackdowns on illegal immigrants could spread nationwide. “And just as you did in some of those states, you’d see crops rotting in the field because they’re not getting harvested,” Sparks said.
Despite such gravity, however, there is no certainty that an immigration reform bill will pass Congress in this session.
“But I will say that we are probably closer than we have ever been,” Carlton said. “And although there has been gridlock in Washington over the last few years, the strident nature of that gridlock seems to have diminished considerably more recently, at least when it comes to this issue.”
Rooney pegged the likelihood of passage during the current session at 50/50. “But the issue of immigration reform does seem to now have more bipartisan support than it ever did before,” he said. “So that does make it more likely that it could happen. But based on the climate I’ve seen in the last Congress and this Congress, it has been very difficult to get anything done.”
Therefore, proponents of reform agree, it is imperative that farmers and other agribusinesses make their voice heard by lobbying their Congressional representatives.
For more information on the AWC’s campaign, visit AgWorkforceCoalition.org.