Commentary: Congress must provide immigration solution for farms

Issue Date: June 6, 2012
By Bob Stallman
Finding a reliable agricultural workforce has become increasingly difficult, and farm organizations urge Congress to create immigration programs that work for farmers nationwide.
Photo/Paolo Vescia
Bob Stallman

Labor shortages have been a significant challenge to U.S. agriculture for as long as I can remember. On my rice farm in Texas growing up, it seemed we were always running short of farmhands when it came time to harvest.

But now, unlike the simpler days of my youth when we could just hire teenagers and retirees, farmers and ranchers face new challenges with labor issues. From border security concerns and state versus federal authority questions to I-9 audits and government-caused labor delays under the H2-A program, finding a reliable agricultural workforce is becoming more and more difficult.

Farmers and ranchers in states like Mississippi and Arizona are currently caught in the crosshairs of an immigration battle that's been waged over state versus federal control. Arizona took its case for state authority (based on legislation S1070) all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in May and is expecting a decision later this month. In the meantime, other states are waiting in the wings to determine the impact the court's decision will have on them.

For Arizona farmers, S1070 is only a Band-Aid that has been applied over the festering, underlying problem of border security and of reforming the visa program to enable farmers to get the temporary and seasonal workers needed for their farms. Farmers and ranchers who live along the Mexican line deserve a secure border, and a major component of that is having a visa program that allows a legal flow of workers back and forth across the border so border security officials can concentrate their resources on the illegal activities.

The American Farm Bureau Federation supports federal jurisdiction, as well as increased presence and cooperation of all branches of law enforcement on both sides of our borders, to eliminate border issue challenges facing many of our members, like theft, drug and human trafficking, as well as illegal crossing. We must secure our borders by the most technologically advanced means possible and in a way that has minimal impact on farmers and ranchers.

With proposed implementation in our near future of mandatory E-Verify—a system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.—an agricultural guestworker program that addresses farmers' unique needs has become a necessity. AFBF will only support a mandatory E-Verify program if there is a workable solution for agriculture. Absent that solution, if E-Verify is implemented, agriculture faces losing millions of dollars in productivity due to labor shortages.

In hopes of finding a workable solution that meets the needs of our members, Farm Bureau created a work group charged with looking at labor challenges more closely and how best to use our policy to resolve them. Made up of Farm Bureau leaders and staff from across the nation, the work group is looking at all parts of the equation, including options that provide a secure workforce, allow portability, address the needs of all commodities and limit bureaucratic red tape.

Everyone is affected by the ensuing immigration battle playing out in our nation. Unfortunately, no one feels its impact more than farmers and ranchers living and working on our borders, as well as those who are continually faced with labor shortages on their farms. Band-Aids will not work. Congress must get to the root of the problem by providing a guestworker program that works for the entire agricultural sector.

(Bob Stallman, a cattle and rice producer from Texas, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

Editor's note: The AFBF immigration work group includes California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little; CFBF National Affairs and Research Division Manager Rayne Pegg also participates in work group meetings.

The work group will make recommendations on immigration policy to the AFBF Board of Directors, so that AFBF can press Congress for action to meet the diverse needs of farmers nationwide.

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