White House: Why CIR Is Critical To American Agriculture

There are many reasons that every American should care about immigration reform, but perhaps none more compelling than this: we all have to eat, and our food supply is heavily dependent upon the immigrant laborers who bring in the harvest. A recent study released by the White House underscores this point. [See Fixing Our Broken Immigration System, Executive Office of the President, 29.Jul.2013.] According to the White House report, agriculture employs about 3 million people across the United States, and net farm income for 2013 is projected to reach $128.2 billion, the highest level since 1973, adjusting for inflation. American agricultural exports are on course to set a new record this year, so what's the problem? In a nutshell, says the White House, it's this:

"Currently, the agriculture industry is hampered by a broken immigration system that fails to support a predictable and stable workforce. Moreover, there continue to be insufficient U.S.-born workers to fill labor needs: of those crop workers surveyed between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent were foreign born."

"Foreign born" doesn't begin to tell the story; America's farm workers vastly are unauthorized immigrants, the study reports, and "conservative estimates suggest that roughly 60 percent of the entire nation's noncitizen farmworkers are unauthorized." Five years ago, agricultural labor shortages were already being felt among growers and packers along the Mexican border; more recently, and especially after restrictive immigration measures were passed in several states, agricultural labor shortages have been especially acute:

"One 2011 survey found that 78 percent of growers [in Georgia] had experienced 'harvest/packing labor shortages' during the spring season. A second survey, conducted by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, found that 26 percent of agriculture producers and processors had experienced a loss of income in 2011 due to a lack of available workers for their operations."

For obvious reasons, the report does not discuss the extent to which the administration's own immigration policies may have played a role in shrinking the pool of available immigrant laborers, especially through the deportation of record numbers of unauthorized immigrants. In any case, economists are attempting to forecast what might happen if the unauthorized agricultural workforce were either sharply reduced or entirely unavailable. Based on projections outlined in the White House study, both scenarios would cause significant economic loss to the agricultural industry.

By contrast, the White House argues, the situation of American agriculture would be greatly improved under the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill that passed the Senate, earlier this summer. Why? Because it would stabilize the agricultural (ag) workforce by providing a pathway to permanent residency - and eventual citizenship - for undocumented ag workers currently in the United States, and by creating two new temporary visa programs for foreign ag laborers.

Citing a study by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the White House says the proposed expansion of the temporary ag worker visa program could increase fruit output by 2.4 percent, grow fruit exports by 3.4 percent, and increase vegetable exports by 5.4 percent. The path to citizenship for currently unauthorized farmworkers is expected to boost their wages by about $1,800 per person, according to a private study by Regional Economic Models, Inc., because it would allow the workers to upgrade their skills and improve their English, thereby giving them access to better-paid work.

As the White House points out, the Senate CIR bill would provide important social benefits, in addition to the many economic ones: it would protect vulnerable immigrant workers from exploitation, unsafe working conditions, human trafficking, and other abusive practices.

In return, America's farms - and everyday consumers - would benefit from a more stable agricultural workforce. It's something for House members to think about as they drive around their districts during the August recess: someone has to bring in the harvest, and in most cases, that someone will be an immigrant. It's another good argument for passing CIR!

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.

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