For decades, immigration reform has been a top concern for many in the United States. Like many Americans, especially those in the Valley, I believe reforming our nation’s immigration system is of critical importance.
In order to do so, we must address both the emotional aspect of the issue as well as the economic realities. Only then will be able to provide a comprehensive solution to one of the biggest debates facing our nation.
As a life-long resident of the Valley, and as a dairy farmer, I understand the critical role immigrants play in California’s agriculture industry. California is an agriculture powerhouse, providing the majority of fruits, vegetables, and nuts for the entire nation.
In 2015, the most recent year for which a full crop year report is available, California’s 77,500 farms produced more than $47 billion in agriculture products. Many of those goods are produced right here, in the Valley. However, in contrast to mechanized techniques utilized in many other regions of the country, the harvest of California agricultural products is labor-intensive.
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For example, to harvest approximately 19,000 acres of cling peaches grown in California, it would take at least 4,000 workers. Citrus, strawberries, blueberries, kiwis, and peaches are picked one-by-one by hand. Despite demand for labor, the truth is, most Americans are unwilling to fill these positions, and subsequently, our agriculture industry faces a serious labor shortage.
While many immigrants come to this country to fill farmworker positions, care for livestock and harvest produce in a timely manner, the shortcomings of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, which allow U.S. employers to bring immigrants to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs, have further exacerbated this shortage.
The H-2A Visa program’s inability to meet the needs of year-round farmers (dairy farms, livestock ranches, and agriculture operations with multiple crops and harvests) severely threatens farmers ability to meet demand. We must repair the system, both for the current workforce and in order to ensure our agricultural communities have access to the workers they desperately need for years to come.
Reforms must provide both employer and employee choice and flexibility. This can be achieved by ensuring employees have the freedom to move from employer to employer without a contractual commitment. In doing so, we can ensure our farmers and ranchers have access to the workforce they depend on.
Without the hard work of skilled immigrants, California’s agriculture industry faces serious consequences, and risks increasing food costs while decreasing our food security as a nation.
Hard-working immigrant farmworkers are not only the backbone of our agriculture industry, but immigrants and their families are the heart and soul of many rural communities. It is an unfortunate reality that the policies implemented by previous administrations did little to improve our immigration system.
Instead, executive orders and regulations trapped many workers on this side of the border, preventing them from returning to their families back in their home countries, and imposing unfair ultimatums on those who contribute so much to our economy and communities.
Reforming our immigration system, especially as it relates to our current and future workforce, is a complex undertaking and requires a comprehensive approach. The success of our agriculture industry depends on immigrants, and without them, the industry’s economic viability, and as a result, the strength our rural communities, will greatly suffer.
Together, as a nation, we must come together to implement fair and balanced immigration policies that ensure an adequate immigrant workforce and humanely address the current undocumented population, while continuing to combat illegal immigration.