The United States agriculture industry faces a rapidly approaching labor crisis, according to the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. A recent hearing on immigrant labor in U.S. agriculture revealed an urgent need to increase the number of legal farm workers from abroad.
In his opening remarks, subcommittee chairman Rep. Elton Gallegly(R-Calif.), said, "There are simply not enough Americans willing to take the jobs of migrant farm workers. In fact, our government's policy for generations has been to remove Americans from such labor."
The lack of legal immigrant U.S. farm workers must be addressed immediately, according to Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, after the hearing. “American farmers need to pay very close attention to this situation.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, 48 percent of farm workers in the country admitted they were in the United States illegally. It is estimated the 13 million unauthorized immigrants reside in the United States.
The agricultural industry has repeatedly asked the federal government to make the H-2A visa program more efficient. Only 2 percent of immigrant workers are approved through the H-2A visa program- the only official channel for an immigrant to legally reside in the United States. “There are minimal opportunities for aspiring immigrants to enter the U.S. legally, and the H-2A guest worker program is bogged down and bureaucratic,“ says Regelbrugge. “If we’re going to avert the crisis facing U.S. agriculture, we’re going to have to do a lot more than just tweak the H-2A program.”
Regelbrugge urges farm managers to appeal to their representatives in Congress and tell them, “we need access to a legal workforce and a legal program that can truly meet the needs of all U.S. agriculture.”
Foreign-born farm workers have become essential to U.S. farms since World War II. Demographic changes occurring since then have changed the profile of farm workers. “The U.S. population has become more urban and suburban,” says Regelbrugge. “Our dependence on foreign-born workers has a lot to do with where the farming jobs are located and the nature of the work.”
American workers would rather opt for more permanent positions. “Americans at the lower end of the economy would prefer to work at WalMart or McDonalds rather than do seasonal or intermittent work on farms and then be unemployed again when the work is over,” Regelbrugge said.
With the current emphasis by the government on making the E-Verify program mandatory, Regelbrugge sees the labor crisis in U.S. agriculture approaching rapidly. He estimates that about 70 percent of the immigrant farm workforce “have papers that look good but are not good.”
A workable visa program for immigrant farm workers is crucial, especially for states such as California and Florida. However, Rep. Dan Lungren, (D-Calif.), said the appetite for such measures in the U.S. Congress is just not there. "I doubt anybody running for president, including the incumbent, is going to run on the fact that he's going to be softer on immigration enforcement," Lungren said. If no action is taken, "we're going to have a crisis in agriculture."