Without an immigration program in place that allows farm employees a legal way to work on U.S. farms and ranches, the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation has told Congress that passage of a proposed mandatory electronic employment verification system would be “a disaster for American agriculture.”
In testimony before a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement in Wash-ington, D.C., California Farm Bur-eau President Paul Wenger says farmers rely on an immigrant workforce, and many of their employees might not qualify to work under the system known as E-Verify.
“Last year, this committee app-roved a bill that would make E-Verify mandatory for all employers regardless of size or industry; however, it offered no solution to add-ress the unique challenges that a national E-Verify mandate will create for agriculture,” Wenger says. “E-Verify, without a workable, economical way to ensure a legal agricultural workforce, will send American agricultural production, and the additional off-farm jobs that are created by it, to other countries.”
E-Verify legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chair-man Lamar Smith (R-Texas) would require employers to verify the eligibility of prospective employees before hiring. The electronic system checks against Social Security numbers and Department of Homeland Security records.
Disruptive Consequences For Agriculture
Another witness at the hearing, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, joined Wenger in telling the House panel that without a solution in place, passage of a proposed employment-verification rule would be disruptive to agriculture.
“Without a 21st century guestworker program that includes many of the initiatives that are contained in pending legislation, I see no way for farmers to meet the future consumer demand with domestically produced peppers (such as in our state) and other agricultural products,” says Black, whose state began requiring private employers to use E-Verify last year.
“Nationally, it is estimated that the agricultural workforce consists of 1.83 million hired workers, and some have estimated that as many as 50 to 70 percent of the hired workers are not authorized to work in the United States,” Wenger says. “Agriculture needs a timely solution that fills the gap between the currently legally authorized workforce and the agricultural needs of the nation.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), asked Wenger if it is possible to replace the current agricultural workforce. Wenger replied that the workforce is made up of thousands of skilled employees.
“A lot of the folks doing this work are driving pieces of equipment that are worth more than your most expensive Mercedes,” Wenger says.
“They are highly skilled people and understand what they are doing, so it is paramount that we give them some kind of adjustment of status to allow them to be in this country.”
Current Program Is Inadequate
Wenger says the existing immigration program for agriculture, known as H-2A, has proven inadequate. California farmers use H-2A on a very limited basis, with only 3,503 employees certified through the H-2A program among the estimated 400,000 hired farm and ranch workers in the state during peak seasons.
“Even if H-2A could be substantially improved, reforming that program alone cannot stabilize the farm labor situation,” Wenger says.
“Any employer will tell you that the (H-2A) program is just too slow and bureaucratic for fast-moving harvest,” Lofgren adds. “Farmers do their best to plan harvest, but unusual rises or dips in temperature or humidity could suddenly move up a harvest, giving growers just days or even hours to pick valuable crops.”
Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.