Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) agree that the shortage of seasonal farm workers in the United States is approaching crisis levels. But they differ on how to address the problem as it relates to recent immigrants.
Witnesses at a May 31 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee said current immigration law leaves immigrants open to exploitation and abuse by human traffickers and unethical employers.
“Our immigration system is failing; it’s failing them as well as our farmers and the American people,” said Durbin, who chairs the committee.
He agreed with witnesses who said most seasonal farm workers are illegal immigrants whose human rights must be protected by ensuring that agricultural labor reform includes the possibility of citizenship.
Graham said implementing reforms without securing the border would only make a bad situation even worse.
“The only solution available is to deal with the other magnets of illegal immigration,” Graham said.
The witnesses said the problem begins with the inability to find citizens and legal residents willing to do the difficult and often dangerous farm work. Many farmers turn to the H-2A temporary visa program, which presents its own problems.
Leon Sequeira, former assistant secretary of labor in the George W. Bush administration, is an attorney for agricultural employers. He said the Department of Labor administers the H-2A visa program and is often hostile or indifferent to farmers. This puts the farmers in a tough spot.
“Farmers have no other legal option,” he told the committee.
H-2A requires that farmers try to hire U.S. citizens or legal residents first. Sequeira said that in the past year, 300 legal residents applied for the roughly 500,000 open farm jobs. This is an average of about six applicants for every 10,000 jobs. However, H-2A presents challenges as well.
The Department of Labor set the farm worker base wage at $16 per hour. Farmers are also required to provide housing and transportation. Sequeira said the department operates as if agriculture is like other businesses in which producers set their own prices.
“Farmers do not get to set the price for their products," he said. "The market sets the price.”
Sequeira said farmers compete in an international market. While American farmers pay workers $16 per hour, Mexican farmers pay about $11 daily.
Chalmers Carr, a South Carolina farmer, testified that this makes the issue more than just a market or immigration problem.
He said the United States is becoming more dependent on inexpensive imported food. So reforming agricultural labor law should be considered a national security issue.
“We have a very fragile food supply chain. I would say we are adversely affecting the consumer with higher food prices,” Carr said.
He noted that citizenship wasn’t necessarily the best incentive. Carr said that in his experience, many of the illegal aliens came to the United States for financial benefits.
“If we created a better guest worker program, we could solve this problem,” he said.
Other witnesses said there are humanitarian considerations as well.
Two women in Florida told her that they were paid in cash by the man who drove them to work each day. The women knew he was keeping part of their pay, but they were afraid to speak up because of the threat of deportation. According to Torres, the H-2A program doesn’t provide workers any legal standing.
Deeply Flawed SystemTorres and others at the hearing said reforms must provide the workers some legal standing that includes a chance at citizenship. To push for reforms that don’t have these factors is an “active choice to support a deeply flawed system,” she said.
Graham said he agreed with everyone who testified. However, he pointed out that revamping the visa program without securing the border would result in a flood of immigrants wishing to take advantage of the programs. He said any legislation must include agricultural labor and immigration reforms.
“Everything you say is true,” Graham told the witnesses.
"If we don’t reform our agriculture system, food prices are going to spike in this country, and it will become a national security issue.”