Hope in Sight for U.S. Farms

May 15, 2009 Updated: May 14, 2009

Farmers and migrant workers may soon receive a long-awaited break as new legislation aims to relieve the agriculture industry of a nationwide labor shortage.

The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Securities Act (AgJOBS) was reintroduced to Congress on Thursday by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Representative Howard Berman (D-Calif.), and Representative Adam Putnam (R-Fla.).

Another 16 senators have signed as co-sponsors and more than 200 national and state agricultural organizations have signed on in support.

Farmers across the country are finding their situation increasingly difficult due to a lack of workers. A slew of other farmers have been forced to decrease the size of their crops to accommodate the dwindling workforce, resulting in more than 1.5 million acres of farmland being closed in the United States between 2007 and 2008 alone.

Due to the hard labor and low pay, few U.S. citizens have stepped forward to take the jobs. Migrant workers are often the lifeblood of the agriculture industry, yet state, local, and federal crackdowns on illegal immigration are leaving farmers dry.

If passed, the AgJOBS legislation could fill the labor gap by reforming the federal government's current H-2A visa program.

Under the new bill, undocumented workers would be eligible for a “blue card” after working in the U.S. agriculture industry for at least 150 days. After another three years working in the industry, they would be eligible to apply for a green card and permanent legal residency.

The number of blue cards issued would be limited to 1.35 million over five years. Applicants for a green card also have to prove they pay taxes and undergo criminal background checks.

“Today across the United States, there are not enough agricultural workers to pick, prune, pack, or harvest our country’s crops. With an inadequate supply of workers, farmers from Maine to California, and from Washington State to Georgia, have watched their produce rot and their farms lay fallow over the years,” Senator Feinstein said in a press release.

A Long History

The AgJOBS legislation has been proposed for several years. It was passed by the U.S. Senate in 2006, yet was refused by the House of Representatives. A concern about the bill involves the granting of legal status to people who have violated immigration laws.

Under current conditions, the U.S. could lose $5 billion to $9 billion to competition from foreign industry within the next two years. The impact will be felt in other industries, including transportation, equipment manufacturing, and processing. It is estimated that each job lost on farms and ranches leads to an additional three jobs lost in related industries, according to the press release.

“The central issue here is not immigration—it is about protecting and preserving the American economy,” Feinstein said. “We in Congress should be doing everything possible to prevent U.S. farms from shutting down.”

Under the current H-2A visa program, agriculture companies can seasonally import foreign workers to fill labor vacuums. When their time is up the laborers need to return home, but they often stay in the U.S. and continue to work illegally. This places them in a complicated situation where deportation is a constant, haunting reality.

“One unfortunate reality of modern American agriculture is that the majority of the foreign workers assisting with the year's harvest are undocumented,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “In fact, the share of the agricultural workforce that is not work-authorized has increased dramatically in recent years while the number of U.S. workers engaged in agriculture has dropped steadily.”

Farmers across the nation are feeling the pinch as their workers are deported or blocked from entering the country.

A Tough Crop

Keith Eckel from Clarks Summit, Penn., used to supply close to 75 percent of the fresh tomatoes sold in stores between Boston and Washington, D.C. Crackdowns on illegal immigrants slowly drained him of workers and Eckel was forced to shut down in March 2008 after being in the industry for decades.

Some are simply moving elsewhere, costing thousands of jobs across the U.S.

Steve Scaroni used to own a lettuce plant in California. Unable to find workers, Scaroni moved his plant to Guanajuato, Mexico, and now employs 500 workers to tend his 2,000 acres.

An estimated 84,000 acres of agriculture production and 22,285 jobs have been moved to Mexico from the United States.

In 2006, agriculture in the U.S. was estimated to worth $276 billion, according to the Department of Labor.

“California’s farmers and growers are still waiting for a solution to the persistent labor shortages that each year cost our state’s agricultural economy billions of dollars,” said Senator Boxer (D-Calif.) in a press release.

“The AgJobs bill will provide our agricultural community with a stable and reliable workforce, and I look forward to working with Senator Feinstein and my colleagues to see that this bill finally becomes law,” Boxer said.

Workers in the crop industry are not the only ones being affected.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that lack of workers in the dairy industry is also a serious problem, as it requires training and year-round labor.

“I have long been concerned about the dairy farmers’ difficulties in trying to use the agricultural visa program. The AgJOBS bill will give dairy farmers needing workers the opportunity to lawfully hire foreign workers who can remain with their employers for a meaningful period of time,” Leathy said in a press release.

The AgJOBS bill comes in two parts. The first would be a five-year pilot program that would give legal immigration status to undocumented agricultural workers who have been working in the U.S. for the past two or more years. The second part would reform the H-2A visa program to better help farmers to bring in workers from foreign countries.

Under the AgJOBS bill, after working in the U.S. agriculture industry for at least 150 days, undocumented workers would be eligible for a blue card. After another three years working in the industry, they would be eligible to apply for a green card and permanent legal residency.

The number of blue cards issued would be limited to 1.35 million over five years. Applicants for a green card also have to prove they pay taxes and undergo criminal background checks.

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