Ag Labor Shortage Points Up Need for Comprehensive Reform

There’s no telling when Congress may get around to dealing with immigration reform again, but pressure continues to mount, and members may find it increasingly difficult to procrastinate further on a matter long overdue for legislative attention. For a time, conventional wisdom held that comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) was too big not to fail – too controversial and too complex to ever get off the ground. After several abortive attempts to pass CIR, this position made sense. The only hope seemed to be to break CIR into smaller, more manageable chunks, and work toward partial and piecemeal reform.

Last month, Congress failed in its attempt to pass a significant partial reform, despite widespread consensus that more green cards are needed to keep foreign STEM grads in the United States. Piecemeal reform has turned out to be every bit as difficult as CIR. Congress may discover that it has nothing to lose by trying a more systemic and comprehensive approach, once again.

The scope of our immigration problems goes far beyond the STEM issue. American agriculture has been suffering an acute labor shortage, largely a result of the patchwork of state and local anti-immigrant legislation, passed at a time of rising frustration with Congressional inaction on immigration. (See Bitter Harvest: U.S. Farmers Blame Billion-Dollar Losses on Immigration Laws, by Alfonso Serrano, TIME, 21.Sep.2012). As TIME neatly capsulized the problem:

“Roughly 70% of the 1.2 million people employed by the agriculture industry are undocumented. No U.S. industry is more dependent on undocumented immigrants. But acute labor shortages brought on by anti-immigration measures threaten to heap job losses on an industry emerging from years of stiff foreign competition. Nationwide, labor shortages will result in losses of up to $9 billion, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.”

Those losses will only increase in the coming years if Congress does not take action to fix the system and provide a more reliable stream of legal foreign agricultural labor to make up for the loss of undocumented workers. The current crisis is bound to force a reckoning with a fact of life: most Americans do not want these jobs. As TIME reports:

“Almost in unison, farmers complain that even when they are able to lure domestic workers to what often amounts to high-skilled, grueling work, it’s not long before they abandon the job.”

That leaves farms – and the consuming public – dependent on a dwindling supply of foreign agricultural labor. The short of it is this: the need for immigration reform is once again on the radar screen of farm-state lawmakers; add to this the many urban members who support STEM visa reform, and you have the beginning of a coalition with enough weight behind it to budge a hitherto immovable object: Congress.

Copyright © 2012, MURTHY LAW FIRM. All Rights Reserved

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