Current U.S. immigration policy fails to adequately address agricultural industry needs, and congressional reforms are required to strengthen immigrant-dependent farm and food sectors in the Midwest and elsewhere in the county, argues a recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The report, which says "immigration reform is urgently needed for a robust agricultural sector in the Midwest," followed President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration announced late last year.
According to the council, Obama's executive orders fall short for agriculture in part because only 250,000 of the up to 5 million undocumented immigrants eligible for temporary relief from deportation under the plan will be farm workers.
"In November, President Obama announced long-awaited executive action on immigration policy, but the measure provides at best only minimal benefit to farm workers," Michele Wucker, vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said in a statement. "At worst, it may actually worsen critical labor shortages at farms across the region."
Outdated systems for H-1B visas, for high-skilled, specialty occupation workers, and H-2A visas, for seasonal agriculture workers, are partly to blame for agricultural labor shortages, the report says. And the country's farm labor supply, which is 30 percent short of what U.S. farmers need, might be reduced further due to Obama's executive actions, because "current farm workers who receive deferred action status might seek more remunerative employment in other sectors," the report explains.
Additionally, the report notes that some farmers have indicated that they could "be forced to fire newly protected workers if they admit to previously lying about their immigration status."
Roughly 57,000 immigrants are employed in the Midwest agricultural industry, including in segments involving crop production, labor-intensive dairy and live stock operations and food processing and handling. Many Midwest-based agribusinesses also depend on high-skilled immigrant engineers, scientists and technicians.
Agriculture in the Midwest has some immigration-related needs specific to the region, the report explains. For example, the Midwest relies heavily on immigrant workers for "year-round animal care," which comes with different labor needs than seasonal crop work in other areas. Also, Midwest agriculture in particular runs into challenges attracting workers because a large number of the jobs are in "hard-to-access rural areas."
"The Midwest has special requirements for reforming the current immigration system, but has been underrepresented in U.S. immigration policy discussions related to agriculture," the report's author Stephanie Mercier added in a statement. "With agriculture accounting for 6.6 percent of the region's economy, about twice the national share, it is crucial for the Midwest to engage in these conversations.
If Congress fails to pass a comprehensive fix for the nation's broken immigration system, there could be several agricultural consequences.
"Midwest farm group representatives are concerned about the long-term impacts of stalled comprehensive immigration reform," the report reads. "They expect four things will happen: (1) there will be less U.S. specialty crop and dairy production; (2) the costs of everything will go up, including such ancillary services as landscaping; 3) overall economic activity will decline because of the uncertainty of farm labor supply; and 4) the backlash will cause production to move offshore."
The council lists a number of immigration-related policy recommendations to help meet Midwest and U.S. agricultural needs, including introduction of a year-round temporary work visa that would "be renewable with no limits, and should not include a home country stay requirement" as well as the elimination of "arbitrary caps or quotas" for workers from various countries.
Other recommendations include the creation of "new worker visas before enforcement measures," allowing farms dependent on immigrant labor to legally hire workers they need in order to stay competitive. Also, if the federal government mandates the use of E-Verify, a system to check the immigration status of potential employees, there should be protections for employers "who judiciously use the system but unknowingly hire unauthorized labor who were falsely in the system."
Restrictions on immigrant workers at the state level should also be limited, the report says, and policies should "respect" labor and human rights as well as recognize Midwest agricultural needs for high-skilled immigrants.
"With geographic, bureaucratic, and visa restrictions hindering access to this workforce, reform is critical for the continued health of agriculture in the Midwest and across the country," Mercier writes in the report. "If the federal government finally seeks to move forward on this urgent issue, members of Congress from the Midwest will need to weigh in on behalf of their farm constituents to ensure that the unique aspects of their farm labor requirements are met."