Commentary: Immigration war hitting too close to home

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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 are facing 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 agriculture workforce is becoming more and more difficult.

From the Border to the Court

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 their 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.

Stepping Off the Fence

With proposed implementation of mandatory E-verify (a system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.) in our near future, an agricultural guest worker 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, allows portability, addresses the needs of all commodities and limits 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 guest worker program that works for the entire agricultural sector.

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NY  |  June, 01, 2012 at 12:39 PM

Terrific idea Farm Bureau - thanks for putting agriculture in such a positive light.. Want to come to the US and live the American Dream? Too bad - we only want you here as part of a permanent labor subclass and you must go home after 3 years. Rural community economic development? Too bad – we’re going to replace lots of small business owners that have a stake in your community with our brand new subclass of laborer that does not speak your language and that will not invest in your real estate. Want to give the family farmer a chance to capitalize on their one true competitive advantage - they can get the work done without high labor costs? Too bad – you’re not as important as big agribusiness. In fact we’ve already done a pretty good job forcing the remaining family farms into labor subclass dependency. Border security, national sovereignty, state sovereignty? Those things are in the way of globalization. American farmers should demand more than this short-sighted nonsense from their most important public voice.

St. Paul, MN  |  June, 03, 2012 at 03:06 PM

Mr. Stallman says: "Labor shortages have been a significant challenge to U.S. agriculture for as long as I can remember." When a business or in this case an industry has had a problem for decades, it is probably time to look in the mirror and determine the root cause of the problem rather than looking to the government for a solution. I believe this is the case here and the question to ask it: what are we doing wrong as employers that we are not attracting excellent workers?

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