In the United States, as in many prosperous nations, foreign workers play a critical role in the production of our nation’s food supply. As Congress struggles with the contentious issue of illegal immigration, it is important that legislators consider the disastrous consequence of the Goodlatte immigration reform bill, if passed.
If our president, senators and congressmen do consider the needs of American farmers, and the importance of sustaining a domestic food supply, in their deliberations over immigration policy, the strategy they develop could bring an end to illegal immigration altogether.
During my 16-year term as a Congressman representing California’s agriculturally diverse San Joaquin Valley, I sought to address the critical labor needs of America’s specialty crop farmers.
I championed initiatives that would bring an end to illegal immigration while protecting the farmers who produce our nation’s food supply.
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This can only happen by strengthening border security, implementing E-verify (an electronic employment verification system), allowing foreign workers to come and go with the season and permit those who are otherwise law abiding, to continue their contribution in the production of our nation’s food supply.
Today, as President of the California Fresh Fruit Association, I am again confronted with the ongoing difficulties of ensuring a stable, legal workforce in the face of our government’s failed immigration policies.
The challenge remains the same for American agriculture: bring an end to illegal immigration and do no harm to our domestic food supply.
Now, the majority of agricultural labor in the western United States is unauthorized residents estimated at 400,000 in California and 800,000 nationally.
So, while every American should support the immediate removal of dangerous and violent criminals, the vast majority of these immigrants crossed a porous border as tired, poor and downtrodden souls.
The idea of immigrating by the letter of the law under desperate circumstances seems like ivory-tower semantics, especially in the absence of robust border security and a legitimate foreign-worker agreement.
In this, the U.S. shares the blame of enabling illegal immigration along with those who crossed illegally, desperate for opportunity and a better life. It is those immigrants that specialty-crop agriculture cannot survive without, even for one year, while waiting for a new guest-worker program and tighter border security.
For decades, the agricultural workforce issue has never been adequately addressed. Sound immigration policy is mired down in the Beltway swamp of politics. In our highly partisan Congress, anything but border control and mass deportation is amnesty to some, while open borders and a pathway to citizenship seem perfectly acceptable to others.
Fifty years of Congressional debate has produced nothing.
Timothy J. Kane, a Fellow of Immigration Studies at the Hoover Institute, has it right when he says, “The immigration quagmire in Congress may be a consequence of misplaced authority. Is immigration a domestic policy or a foreign policy? A purely legislative, domestic approach has simply not worked.”
My experience in Congress and in agriculture tells me that Kane is right; the Legislative Branch will need help from the President, a strong leader willing and able to negotiate with foreign partners, while working with Congress to end illegal immigration.
Through a diplomatic agreement such as a treaty, trade or executive agreement, President Trump could break the immigration impasse and provide the farm sector the assurance of an uninterrupted supply of labor while effective border control is put in place.
On a parallel track, while Congress considers strengthening border security, the President could negotiate a treaty, trade agreement or an executive agreement with foreign countries, resulting in conditional legal status for qualifying farmworkers currently residing in the U.S.
There are many benefits to this strategy:
▪ It provides a way for the administration to solve a problem that has plagued Congress for decades.
▪ If done in tandem with Congress, it could eliminate any incentive for the hiring of undocumented individuals by requiring use of a federal employment verification system (E-Verify).
▪ It will not displace domestic workers because Americans are disinterested in field labor; they don’t show up for work and forced labor is not an option.
▪ Once accomplished, it could serve as a blueprint for other industries that are, to a lesser degree, dependent upon a foreign labor supply.
▪ With a treaty, we can secure cooperation with Mexico and/or other nations to make sure workers fulfill their obligations.
▪ A fee can be assessed to address program administration and border security priorities.
▪ An agreement and accompanying legislation can be enacted in a manner to prevent any interruption of agriculture labor.
▪ Once enacted, foreign nationals failing to qualify or refusing to participate would be subject to immigration enforcement action, including deportation.
We must use a scalpel, not a hatchet, to bring an end to illegal immigration and protect our nation’s food supply. The combination of an agreement from the executive branch, along with E-Verify and strong border enforcement from Congress, does just that.
With President Trump, we have a unique opportunity to end illegal immigration. Now is the time to take a fresh approach to immigration reform, starting with agricultural labor.
George Radanovich is a former U.S. representative for California’s 19th District, serving from 1995 to 2011. He is now president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, a voluntary, nonprofit agricultural trade association that represents California’s fresh fruit industry. Connect with him at email@example.com.