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Ag Weaker Without Immigration Reform

Ag Weaker Without Immigration Reform

New studies show just how damaging it would be to agriculture if reform doesn't happen soon.

The Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform in June and although the House has passed five separate pieces of legislation addressing immigration shortfalls, the sentiment has started to shift in the House towards also taking a more comprehensive approach.

It may be October before the House truly tackles broader reform legislation, but advocates for reform are trying to keep the issue in the limelight. The White House is increasing its pressure to move forward on comprehensive reform with the release of a report outlining the economic benefits to agriculture and rural America.

WAITING GAME: House taking its time moving on immigration reform, and it is causing plenty of damage to agriculture.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack notes, "There is momentum for this. There is a desire to get this done. There is an alignment of interest groups you don’t normally see."

"A lack of labor will today and into the future result in a decrease in agricultural production, outputs and exports which will cost farm income and jobs," Vilsack says, adding it is "important for Congress to finish its work this year."

Earlier this summer a coalition of 400 major U.S. businesses and advocacy organizations including groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, International Dairy Foods Assn., and American Feed Industry Assn. called on House leaders to enact legislation that will deal with an immigration system that is "completely incapable of being responsive to an ever-changing national economy and hypercompetitive global marketplace."

The groups said they have been engaged with many members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – on numerous components of a modern immigration system. "We urge that you not let this momentum slip and progress vanish," the letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R., Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D., Calif.

Impacts highlighted

In a media call highlighting the White House report, Vilsack said the new analysis draws on a series of reports and surveys from within USDA as well as outside sources. The report defines the problem, which Vilsack notes is that of the 1.1 million full-time farmworkers, nearly half are noncitizens. As it relates to new entries, perhaps 3/4 of those workers are not here properly, Vilsack noted. Although it impacts fruit and vegetable industries more, it is also a growing issue in the crop, dairy and livestock sectors. 

The report states that during 2007-2011, there were on average 505,000 noncitizen farmworkers (including both authorized and unauthorized) in the United States, representing 43% of all crop and livestock farmworkers. In California, such workers represented fully 73% of the farm workforce.

Over this period, noncitizens filled more than one quarter of farm jobs in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Virginia.

Conservative estimates suggest that roughly 60% of the entire nation’s noncitizen farmworkers are unauthorized, the report noted.

The report states that a stimulation model suggests that over the long run (15 years from now) an expansion of the magnitude contemplated under the proposed agricultural temporary worker program could result in a 2.4% increase in fruit output (with exports growing by 3.4%) and a 5.4% increase in vegetable exports, relative to the base forecast. Dairy could see output rise by 0.6% which could provide a 4.6% increase in exports, and meat output could increase 0.6% resulting in a 3.8% export increase (see chart on page 1).

According to an economic analysis by the Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), an expanded H-2A visa program – like the one found in the W-3 and W-4 provisions in the bipartisan Senate bill – would raise GDP by approximately $2 billion in 2014 and $9.79 billion in 2045. "Coupled with a decline in native-born rural populations, the strength and continuity of rural America is contingent on commonsense immigration reform that improves job opportunity, provides local governments with the tools they need to succeed, and increases economic growth," a statement from the White House noted.

Vilsack adds that comprehensive immigration reform will improve employment security, increase working conditions for everyone, allow for a fair marketplace for those producers who are playing by the rules, as well as lead to population growth in rural communities.

The report has an excellent break out of state-by-state comparisons of the impact of immigration reform as well as the current noncitizen workforce. As an example, Vilsack explained that California has 81,000 farms in the state which brings in $34 billion in sales per year. However, 73% of their workforce are noncitizens, with a majority of those unauthorized. In the short-term, ag production losses if immigrant labor were eliminated could cost $1.7 to $3.1 billion annually. However, if the Senate's new agricultural H-2A program is approved, it could create nearly 9,500 jobs.

For some Midwest states that do not have the scope of fruit and vegetable production, the impact is still considerable. Vilsack cites South Dakota which has 31,169 farms with $6.6 billion in total ag sales. Only 10% of its farmworker share is noncitizen, but loses could total $8.3 million to $15 million if immigrant labor is eliminated.

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