The House of Representatives twice failed to pass legislation dealing with DACA (“Dreamers”) and border enforcement. First, centrist Republicans and Democrats rejected a bill by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte that was seen as too restrictive on Dreamers. That bill also required all employers to use the electronic employment verification system, E-Verify, plus provisions that would wipe out most the work force supporting California’s farms. Days later, a bill on DACA and border security – minus mandatory E-Verify and the harmful provisions for California’s farm workforce – fell far short of approval. While comprehensive immigration reform appears to be stalled, a workable immigration fix for agriculture may be coming soon.
Farmers have made their case for immigration reform. Our farms – in particular those here in California’s Central Valley – are heavily dependent on foreign workers, the vast majority of whom are unauthorized. These foreign hands will harvest our fruits and vegetables, either here in our country, subject to the most protective regulatory and food safety oversight in the world, or in other countries without these same humanitarian or security assurances.
Truth be told, American fruit and vegetable farmers are already losing the battle to foreign competition. A few short decades ago, we were net exporters of fruits and vegetables. Today, our country has a $13 billion trade deficit in fresh produce.
One critical variable in this equation is labor, as California farmers face chronic shortages of 20 percent to 30 percent. If we want to protect our domestic food production – and the Central Valley economy – we must provide our farmers with access to a stable, legal supply of foreign workers. This will require immigration reform that accomplishes two things: protects our existing employees by providing them and their families a legal status, and secures an adequate supply of future workers in the form of an uncapped guest worker program.
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Unfortunately, the proposal still being shopped around the halls of Congress – despite its defeat on the House floor – does precisely the opposite, and would serve to contract, not expand, the availability of agricultural employees. Under the bill known as H.R. 4760, the Securing America’s Future Act (SAFA), a so-called “touchback provision” for existing workers is a nonstarter. Many of our farmworkers have lived in the U.S. for years, decades in some cases, and have families with deep ties to their local communities. Very few are willing to voluntarily declare their unauthorized status and that of their spouses to become part of a guest worker program that requires them to leave the country for extended periods of time, hoping new visas are granted and renewed. Consequently, these farmworkers will be driven deeper into the shadows, and will ultimately become unavailable to farmers as mandatory E-Verify kicks in.
Additionally, HR 4760 contemplates a new agricultural guest worker visa to replace the existing H-2A program. While several of the provisions represent an improvement over the current system, the imposition of a cap would severely restrict farmers’ access to an adequate supply of employees, especially since most of our current workers would disappear under the touchback provision of the bill.
Fortunately for farmers and all Californians, we have champions from the Valley committed to including E-Verify if and only if there is protection for our current work force and no cap on guest worker visas. In the face of deep divisions within their own caucus, three Valley Republicans – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Representatives Jeff Denham and David Valadao – demonstrated courage and conviction in the tumultuous legislative debates, standing firm for the protection of California farmers and their employees.
An opportunity now exists for Congress to rise from the ashes of June’s failed immigration votes with a workable agriculture immigration bill that protects our critically important existing workers and creates a new, market-based guest worker program for the future. This, we are told, would be based on agriculture’s version of an immigration bill – not one that caters to politicians whose real aim is universal E-Verify for all industries in the country with no help for farmers in California and across the nation who share our concerns. There has been talk of a July vote in the House to address agriculture’s concerns. Passage of such legislation has been notoriously elusive, but we are optimistic we can stand shoulder to shoulder with these three Valley congressmen to make it happen.
Tom Nassif is President/CEO of Western Growers and Jamie Johansson is President of California Farm Bureau Federation.