Commentary: Growth in H-2A underlines need for policy changes

Issue Date: November 7, 2018
By Bryan Little and Sara Neagu-Reed
Bryan Little
Sara Neagu-Reed
Use of the H-2A agricultural visa program in California has increased—but California Farm Bureau immigration-policy specialists say the program’s bureaucratic impediments will continue to limit its use, and that policy changes will be needed to respond to changing trends affecting California farmers and their employees.
Photo/Dave Kranz

In only five years, the number of positions certified under the federal H-2A agricultural worker visa program has risen to nearly a quarter of a million. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation Market Intel blog, that's a 108 percent increase during that time. In California, even with our large population of resident farm employees, use of the H-2A program has risen by 213 percent since 2017.

This probably comes as no surprise to California agricultural employers, who consistently report severe difficulty recruiting and retaining employees for planting, cultivation and harvest. Of the 762 California farmers and ranchers who responded to our Agricultural Labor Availability Survey last year, more than half said they were experiencing employee shortages, and nearly seven in 10 of those who employ a seasonal workforce said they were experiencing shortages.

It's important to understand the relationship between a rapidly growing H-2A program and the overall labor force.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports it had certified 18,908 H-2A positions for employment in California as of Sept. 30. The California Employment Development Department estimates California agricultural employment of more than 418,000 in 2017. University of California, Davis, professor emeritus Phil Martin has said he believes as many as two people fill each of those jobs, because many farm employees don't work year-round. If he's right, 19,000 H-2A workers in California represent a little more than 2 percent of the agricultural workforce.

Another UC Davis professor, J. Edward Taylor, has predicted "The End of Farm Labor Abundance," pointing out in an article with that title that Mexico is experiencing its own shortage of farm employees—to the point Mexico now relies in part on farm employees from Guatemala. But if, as Taylor found, the number of farm employees from rural Mexico is declining by more than 150,000 each year, how long can the H-2A program maintain its growth and continue to fill gaps in the U.S. agricultural workforce?

Although the H-2A program now seems to be the only game in town, California agriculture is changing. It's becoming more mechanized than ever, even as H-2A program use grows rapidly.

Growth in non-labor-intensive crops in California has been impressive: Just look out the windows of your car as you drive along Interstate 5 and marvel at the mechanized production of walnuts and almonds. Winegrape production is becoming more mechanized each year. Processing tomatoes have been highly mechanized for years. Farmers are working to mechanize everything from planting starts to pneumatic leaf thinners in winegrape vineyards, to automated weeders and thinners in leafy greens.

California farms and ranches are just like any other business in one respect: It's vitally important to their survival to understand the cost and maximize the value of every input, even the work of the hands that feed all of us. Shortages of employees drive up the cost of the "labor input," and so do regulatory decisions made by our state and federal governments.

In 50 years, California agriculture may be much more heavily mechanized and capital-intensive than it is now, but that's a long time away. It's clear the H-2A program, with all its bureaucratic impediments, can't fill the gap between the number of employees farmers need and the number we have.

A few simple reforms will be needed—reforms that require more political commitment than Congress has mustered so far.

First, we should find a way for the resident California agricultural workforce to remain in place. We need a reasonable way for these vital employees to gain an immigration status that will allow them to remain in California to work, raise their families and continue to be part of our communities.

They deserve better than the "touchback" proposals that would require resident immigrant employees to return to their original countries in order to qualify for an agricultural visa. It's unreasonable to expect someone who's lived here for decades to return to what amounts to a foreign country and trust they'll be allowed to return in a realistic time and manner to their jobs, families and communities.

If we can accomplish the political feat of eliminating "touchback," the next order of business would be creation of an agricultural guestworker program that works for California.

At Farm Bureau, we think the key innovation to make that politically palatable would be allowing employee "portability." Portability means an employee who has been properly vetted and who wants to come to California should be allowed to work for any California farm employer willing to follow basic rules of fairness and decent treatment: a reasonable wage, the high level of workplace protections we already have in California, and the right for an employee to vote with his or her feet and go to work for a new employer if he or she chooses to do so.

California agriculture is vastly different than it was 50 years ago; it will be vastly different 50 years from now. Farm Bureau will continue advocating for immigration policies flexible enough to accommodate those changes, and to provide a better future for farmers, ranchers and their employees.

(Bryan Little is director of employment policy and Sara Neagu-Reed is associate director of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

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

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