Leaders in the U.S. agriculture sector were left largely underwhelmed at the immigration plan announced by President Obama Thursday evening. Despite urging from agriculture advocates, undocumented farmworkers will see no benefit from their employment and will have to fit the criteria laid out by the White House.
Undocumented farmworkers in the United States are estimated to number between 500,000 and 1.75 million. The wide gulf between the two figures helps illustrate how difficult it is to get a grip on exactly how many illegal immigrants there are in the country. Regardless, the plan put forth by Obama is expected to help some 250,000 farmworkers.
“In practical terms, we do not expect the president’s initiative to help America’s farmers deal with the real labor challenges they face,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, in a statement. “Our nation loses millions of dollars in fruit and vegetable production every year because farmers cannot find labor to harvest everything they grow. This order will not change that.
“Farmers and ranchers need a new, flexible visa program that ensures long-term access to an expanding workforce by allowing foreign-born workers to enter the U.S. We also need to permit some current workers, many of whom have helped sustain our operations for years, to remain working in America.
“Congress has a golden opportunity to present a clear vision on immigration in America. We need legislation that addresses border security and enforcement, improves an outdated agricultural visa program and gives experienced agricultural workers a way to gain legal status.”
The response of Paul Wenger, who heads the California Farm Bureau, was also muted. “While we appreciate the President’s interest in reforming our inadequate immigration system, we’re afraid his action may complicate efforts to achieve a comprehensive, long-term solution.
“Farmers, ranchers and their employees need a permanent solution. We understand the President’s frustration with the lack of action. We’re frustrated, too. But we’re equally frustrated by the failure of the President and congressional leaders to sit down and work something out.”
Further, continued Wenger, “It is unclear how many unauthorized immigrants might step forward to take advantage of a program that could evaporate after the inauguration of the next President. To truly serve farmers, ranchers and immigrant employees, it’s time for the president and Congress to stop trading competing statements and start trading concrete proposals for reform.”
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, currently ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, termed the White House plan as temporary amnesty. “There is no justifiable reason for President Obama to act alone now to allow millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States.
“The same pressures to secure our borders and reform our legal immigration system will exist in January when the new Congress convenes. By circumventing the legislative process now, I believe the President is making it much harder to address those problems.
“The Congress should review its best options and then act responsibly to address the President’s actions and ensure the primacy of the rule of law.”
In recent years, Mike Strain, Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner, has been among those consistently pushing for an efficient national guest worker policy.
“Agriculture is too critical to our nation’s economy for this issue to get entangled in politics,” said Strain in 2012. “The agricultural community wants, needs and demands reform in the guest worker policy.”
Strain said the H-2B provision of the Department of Labor rules allow U.S. employers to bring in foreign nationals for work if employers can establish that the need for workers is temporary and/or seasonal and demonstrate there are not sufficient American workers who are available to do the work. The number of H-2B guest workers is capped at 66,000 per year. The Gulf Coast seafood industry uses about 3,000 of these workers each year.
“Crawfish, shrimp, and crab processors and agricultural producers establish the need for temporary workers each year and are never able to fill the jobs locally.”
Strain has proposed a plan that involves pre-processing foreign workers for a five year period. “Ninety percent of guest workers brought into the country come year after year to work in our crawfish plants, crawfish ponds, agricultural fields and hospitality industries, many for the same employers. We have to implement a pre-processing system that will be good for five years. If guest workers have already worked in the U.S. and did a good job and stayed out of trouble in our country and in their own country, then our seafood and agricultural employers should be allowed to bring those workers into the U.S. to work without unnecessary delays and expense.”