The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 10, 2013

Our View: Immigration bill must solve the ag worker problem

The Free Press

— An immigration bill is way past due, but imminent. On Tuesday a tentative bipartisan agreement was announced by a key negotiator, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and a landmark immigration bill could be released as early as today.

A big debate is coming soon.

Optimism reigns, for the moment, because agriculture workers and growers were able to arrive at a framework this week. And while most of the nation has focused on border security and pathways to citizenship, the agriculture worker issue is important. What America badly needs is a workable visa plan, one that provides a dependable workforce during harvest seasons as well as providing better security for those who the farm industry relies on for bringing harvests home.

As things stand, growers are hard-pressed not to hire foreign workers because there are not enough legal residents interested in doing the hard work. The answer is to provide a path to a more permanent workforce. One promising plan, embraced by both growers and unions, would distribute “blue cards” granting legal status to farm workers who’ve logged at least two years in the industry and expect to remain at least five years more. Blue cards, then, could be eventually traded in for green cards, which could then lead to citizenship.

Labor and industry estimates say 70 percent or more of the nation’s farm workers are here illegally. The present visa program has been woefully inadequate to address the situation, as only about 55,000 H2A visas (a 10-month program for farm workers) were issued in 2011, whereas there are about 2 million farm workers here altogether. Critics favoring growers charge that the present program is inflexible and unworkable, as it requires proofs that efforts to hire domestic workers were unsuccessful and mandates government-established wages and housing. But worker groups, including the United Farm Workers of America, are nervous that farm workers’ already-low wages will be eroded with any new deal.

Meanwhile, the lack of a resolution is bad for everyone. 

We must allow more agricultural workers to come here legally, and we must ensure that they work under fair conditions. At the very least, it is time for us all to recognize the debt we owe to those who harvest our most labor-intensive crops — who do it for low pay at a time when most U.S. citizens refuse to consider such work, and when (and this will never change) all of us expect low prices for the home-grown food that we put on our tables.

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, put it in stark terms recently. “It comes down to either we’re importing our labor or we’re importing our food, and if we don’t have access to a legal supply of labor we will start going offshore.”

Going outside of the U.S. for our food? It should never happen; not in the world’s breadbasket. So our politicians will need to avoid the grandstanding, avoid playing to their most extreme interests, and get a past-due solution completed.