By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Avoiding a huge round of budget cuts has been the news from Washington, D.C., but the issue of immigration reform has not been far behind. Agriculture leaders are hopeful if an immigration bill makes it to a vote, it includes specifics for farmers.
Farmers across the country have suffered a shortage of legal, quality immigrant laborers, especially in areas where more labor-intense crops are grown. Kentucky still grows the most burley tobacco of any state in the country, but labor issues are causing headaches for most growers, with some considering cutting back production if something isn’t done.
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) has weighed in on the issue. Its statement noted: “American agriculture faces a shortage of workers every year. A Farm Bureau economic analysis concluded that $5 billion to $9 billion in annual production is in jeopardy if the employee shortage cannot be filled.”
The statement went on to note the AFBF policy on the issue: “Only reform through legislation can solve the agricultural worker problem. In seeking a meaningful legislative solution to agriculture’s worker shortage, Farm Bureau believes that comprehensive immigration reform must include an effective, usable, foreign worker program … a reliable employment verification system … an adequate transition provision.”
Under “an effective, usable, foreign worker program,” the statement added: “Farm Bureau strongly supports a worker program that encompasses several elements, including provisions that: provide workers with a visa that lasts at least three years and is renewable multiple times; offer an opportunity to continue working, and provide a waiver from inadmissibility, to interested agricultural workers who were unlawfully present and working in agriculture prior to introduction of legislation but are otherwise admissible under the Immigra-tion and Nationality Act;
“Require workers with a visa to return permanently to their home country when their visa expires, but allows employers to recruit eligible workers indefinitely; allow those who are currently in the U.S. illegally to be eligible to apply for a work visa – this visa would not grant a pathway to citizenship (and) the application period for this visa would only be for one year; (and) eliminate excessive or duplicative bureaucracy and unnecessary red tape,” to name a few.
The federal H-2A Worker program is the only legal means to get immigrant laborers to the places they are most needed on a consistent basis. But it is expensive and plagued with red-tape issues.
Rick Alexander, the executive director of the Agriculture Workforce Manage-ment Assoc. (AWMA), said there doesn’t seem to be enough immigrant workers presumably because of tougher border security and the fact that agriculture labor is not that attractive to many workers. Tougher state laws have also driven many workers away in places like Georgia and Alabama.
Alexander said interest has risen in the H-2A program and plenty of labor is available through the program if farmers want to participate. The AWMA provides support services and guidance to its stockholder employers who wish to apply for temporary alien agricultural labor certification, for the purpose of employing H-2A workers on a temporary or seasonal basis, according to information from the organization.
But it remains to be seen if any adjustments to the ag worker program will be a part of immigration reform. Alexander said as he understands it, there is talk from lawmakers of other guest worker programs. “What we are hearing is the H-2A program will be as it is, but they’ll add other options to have labor. Now what that looks like … everybody wants to get the Department of Labor out of the process and basically want the USDA to drive the new guest worker program,” he said.
“Whether anybody is going to agree to that, I don’t know, but what we are being told and what we hear is H-2A will stay in contact as it is but there will be other programs.”
Alexander said one of the issues with the current program is it is a contract and workers must stay with the farm on which they were brought to the United States to work. A new idea would be to allow them to come in and work for anyone they want. “Most H-2A employers that have been in this for years don’t want that. They want the same people back every year,” he said.
But it is expensive. Alexander said it will cost a farmer about $1,000 to get a worker here, plus paying the mandated hourly wage rate, which in Kentucky for 2013 is $9.80. “It is expensive, but it is dependable,” he added.
Mark Haney, president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau (KFB), said any farming operation is so dependent on workers, especially those growing more labor-intense crops, and ag labor should be a part of any immigration legislation. “If comprehension immigration legislation is addressed and ag labor is not a part of it, we think we’re in real trouble, because it would be extremely hard to bring something in later,” he said. “We’re hopeful the ag sector all across the country will come together and support one idea.”
Haney said the KFB thinks reform to the H-2A program is part of the solution, but there also has to be a common-sense approach to be able to document the undocumented worker who is already here and already in the labor market.
“Nothing is ever going to work, in my opinion, until that problem is addressed. No one is really asking to make that a pathway to citizenship but we do need to figure out a way to have those folks register and be legal workers,” he said.