CFBF president urges immigration solutions


Issue Date: February 15, 2012
By Christine Souza
California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger testifies at a House subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., that farmers and their employees need practical, effective immigration solutions.
Photo/ Brian Kaveney

Without an immigration program in place that allows farm employees a legal way to work on U.S. farms and ranches, the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation told Congress last week that passage of a proposed mandatory electronic employment verification system would be "a disaster for American agriculture."

In testimony before a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement in Washington, D.C., California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger said farmers rely on an immigrant workforce and many of their employees might not qualify to work under the system known as E-Verify.

"Last year, this committee approved a bill that would make E-Verify mandatory for all employers regardless of size or industry; however, it offered no solution to address the unique challenges that a national E-Verify mandate will create for agriculture," Wenger said. "E-Verify, without a workable, economical way to ensure a legal agricultural workforce, will send American agricultural production, and the additional off-farm jobs that are created by it, to other countries."

E-Verify legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would require employers to verify the eligibility of prospective employees before hiring. The electronic system checks against Social Security numbers and Department of Homeland Security records.

Another witness at the hearing, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, joined Wenger in telling the House panel that without a solution in place, passage of a proposed employment-verification rule would be disruptive to agriculture.

"Without a 21st century guestworker program that includes many of the initiatives that are contained in pending legislation, I see no way for farmers to meet the future consumer demand with domestically produced peppers (such as in our state) and other agricultural products," said Black, whose state began requiring private employers to use E-Verify last year.

"Nationally, it is estimated that the agricultural workforce consists of 1.83 million hired workers and some have estimated that as much as 50 to 70 percent of the hired workers are not authorized to work in the United States," Wenger said. "Agriculture needs a timely solution that fills the gap between the currently legally authorized workforce and the agricultural needs of the nation."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, asked Wenger if it is possible to replace the current agricultural workforce. Wenger replied that the workforce is made up of thousands of skilled employees.

"A lot of the folks doing this work are driving pieces of equipment that are worth more than your most expensive Mercedes," Wenger said. "They are highly skilled people and understand what they are doing, so it is paramount that we give them some kind of adjustment of status to allow them to be in this country and work."

Wenger said the existing immigration program for agriculture, known as H-2A, has proven inadequate. California farmers use H-2A on a very limited basis, with only 3,503 employees certified through the H-2A program among the estimated 400,000 hired farm and ranch workers in the state during peak seasons.

"Even if H-2A could be substantially improved, reforming that program alone cannot stabilize the farm labor situation," Wenger said.

"Any employer will tell you that the (H-2A) program is just too slow and bureaucratic for fast-moving harvest," Lofgren added. "Farmers do their best to plan harvest, but unusual rises or dips in temperature or humidity could suddenly move up a harvest, giving growers just days or even hours to pick valuable crops."

Noting the diversity of agriculture around the country, with different regions producing different commodities with widely varying weather, cultivation and harvest times, Wenger said such diverse needs "cannot be addressed through a one-size-fits-all, single-program solution."

And, he said, experience has shown that even with current high unemployment rates, "there is no realistic prospect of a domestic workforce for agriculture." As the U.S. labor force has grown older, more urban and focused on year-round jobs with predictable work hours, he said, "our native-born seek other jobs outside the agriculture sector."

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, a member of the subcommittee, has authored a proposal that would create an entirely new, market-based "W" visa program for agricultural workers. The proposal requires a biometric visa, criminal background check and incentives for workers to abide by the terms of their visas and return home when the work is done.

"Rep. Lungren's bill creates a program that comes closer to replicating the way the farm labor force needs to move among employers and crops, based on seasons and the weather, and will meet the needs of farmers," Wenger said.

While a workable agricultural immigration program must succeed for farmers who grow perishable crops, Wenger said, it must also benefit dairy farms, livestock ranches, nurseries and other employers with year-round needs, and must accommodate the large, experienced workforce already employed on farms and ranches.

"Any solution must be practical and allow current workers to step out of the shadows to do the work that is so important to feeding our nation and the world," Wenger said.

A workable agricultural immigration program, he said, must recognize that "many of our workforce want and need the ability to come to the U.S., work on our farms and ranches, and return to their home country."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.