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Farmers Dealing with Labor Shortages because of Issues with the H-2A Program

Labor shortages have been a significant challenge to U.S. agriculture for as long as I can remember. On rice farms in Texas to corn fields in Nebraska, it seems as though farmers are always running short of farmhands when it comes time to harvest.

But now, unlike the simpler days of 20 years ago and longer, when farmers could just hire teenagers and retirees, farmers and ranchers are facing new challenges with labor issues. From border security concerns and state versus federal authority questions to I-9 audits and government-caused labor delays under the H2-A program, finding a reliable agriculture workforce is becoming more and more difficult.

From the Border to the Court

Farmers and ranchers in states like Mississippi and Arizona are currently caught in the cross-hairs of an immigration battle that’s been waged over state versus federal control. Arizona took their case for state authority (based on legislation SB1070) all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in May and is expecting a decision later this month. In the meantime, other states are waiting in the wings to determine the impact the court’s decision will have on them.

For Arizona farmers, SB1070 is only a band aid that has been applied over the festering, underlying problem of border security and of reforming the visa program to enable farmers and ranchers to get the temporary and seasonal workers needed for their farms. Farmers and ranchers who live along the Mexican line deserve a secure border and a major component of that is having a visa program that allows a legal flow of workers back and forth across the border so border security officials can concentrate their resources on the illegal activities.

The American Farm Bureau Federation supports federal jurisdiction, as well as increased presence and cooperation of all branches of law enforcement on both sides of our borders, to eliminate border issue challenges facing many of our members, like theft, drug and human trafficking, as well as illegal crossing. Secure borders are a must by the most technologically advanced means possible and in a way that has minimal impact on farmers and ranchers.

Stepping Off the Fence

With proposed implementation of mandatory E-verify (a system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.) in the near future, an agricultural guest worker program that addresses farmers’ unique needs has become a necessity. AFBF will only support a mandatory E-verify program if there is a workable solution for agriculture. Absent that solution, if E-Verify is implemented, agriculture faces losing millions of dollars in productivity due to labor shortages. The requirements of E-Verify are too cumbersome to implement within the agricultural guest worker program.

In hopes of finding a workable solution that meets the needs of our members, Farm Bureau created a work group charged with looking at labor challenges more closely and how best to use that policy to resolve them. Made up of Farm Bureau leaders and staff from across the nation, the work group is looking at all parts of the equation, including options that provide a secure workforce, allows portability, addresses the needs of all commodities and limits bureaucratic red tape.

Everyone is affected by the ensuing immigration battle playing out in our nation. Unfortunately, no one feels its impact more than farmers and ranchers living and working on our borders, as well as those who are continually faced with labor shortages on their farms. Band aids will not work. Congress must get to the root of the problem by providing a guest worker program that works for the entire agricultural sector, otherwise crops will go bad, farms and ranches will require more assistance from the government, or at worst, end up facing the end of their businesses as well. Farms and ranches are a vital industry that cannot have their needs overlooked simply because their reach is not nearly as global as the automotive industry. Addressing the migrant labor issue would be a strong step to stabilizing and ensuring the farming industry does not fall under similar circumstances.