Agriculture commissioners from eight states got a close look at the unique problems facing ag producers on the Texas-Mexico border during a special tour hosted by the Texas Department of Agriculture recently.
“My goal is for them to be able to carry this message back home and discuss the border… and the need to reform our failed worker program,” Texas Agriculture Secretary Todd Staples told visiting commissioners. "The guest worker program today is very bureaucratic; participants … have to go through at least three different federal agencies, not to mention there are limits and caps on [work] visas. We need to totally revamp that system."
Staples said the purpose of a guest worker program is to allow foreign nationals to enter the United States as temporary residents for a pre-determined period of time for employment. The agriculture industry historically has been a proponent of guest worker programs.
But the program has been a hotly debated issue in Washington in recent years over concerns of border safety issues following the growing risks of terrorist activity since 2001.
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But as lawmakers push for tighter border security, the agriculture industry has experienced increased difficulty finding enough guest workers to meet farm labor needs.
Recently, a few ag-sympathetic lawmakers have tried to amend and expand existing farm worker provisions. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 that addressed border security, worker programs and citizenship, but the House failed to move forward on the bill when Republicans refused to pass it without first authorizing legislation that would address what they termed “more effective border security.”
While immigration reform and a guest worker program has hit major roadblocks in Congress, the need for an effective farm worker program increases each year as the number of guest workers decline. While both the Senate and the House haggle over the details of immigration reform, ag producers across the nation complain they are losing production or, in extreme cases, choosing not to plant some labor-intensive crops because of worker shortages.
According to USDA, agriculture annually needs an estimated one million workers to run the nation’s farms, poultry plants and ranches, with more than half of those positions usually filled by undocumented workers. However, U.S. Department of Labor statistics indicate only about 65,000 work visas were issued in all of 2013.
Farm groups point to tougher immigration laws, like the one passed recently in Alabama, which complicate farm worker provisions. In 2011, Alabama passed a sweeping bill to crack down on illegal immigrants that both supporters and opponents call the toughest of its kind in the country.
Tough bill rescinded
But Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan said even though he initially supported the Alabama bill, he recanted that position and was instrumental in having the state legislature rescind it to allow for a more aggressive farm worker program to meet the state’s agriculture needs.
In an interview at the time, McMillan said: “Alabama had to address the legitimate need for legal seasonal workers or force major losses on the industry.”
Most of the eight visiting ag commissioners are from non-border states. But each of the eight states relies heavily on the agricultural industry for revenues. Also, all of the states represented have a large influx of immigrants, many of which first cross the Texas-Mexico border before continuing their journey to other states in search of employment.
Perhaps most enlightening for visiting commissioners was the humanitarian aspect of the tour. In recent weeks, the Rio Grande Valley has seen a huge influx of young immigrant children and teenagers illegally crossing the border alone under risky, even dangerous conditions. Hundreds of children were picked up in a single day recently. Thousands are being held in detention centers in South Texas. A stop at one of these detention centers provided a different perspective for many of the visiting commissioners. In a recent interview, Agriculture Commissioner Ed Kee of Delaware said he had heard and talked to people from Guatemala who ended up in Delaware, but after making the trip to the Texas border, he said he now has a new appreciation for the problem.
Staples thanked visiting commissioners for taking the time to come to the Valley to witness the problems agriculture is facing in the border region and said he hoped the tour would put a new face on immigration and emphasized how important a revised worker program is for each state and the nation.
"The goal of bringing people from across the nation and so many states is so they can work where they are most needed. I think the tour will help visiting dignitaries to step up the pressure on Washington to do the right thing and bring about reform to guest worker programs needed by our farms and ranches,” Staples said.