Setting market prices aside, one of the greatest challenges farmers face is agriculture labor. Given the current political atmosphere, there is a large amount of concern and confusion around guest worker programs and whether or not they are going to change.
In June, the House of Representatives rejected the so-called “Ag Act” bill (H.R. 4760), sponsored by Congressman Bill Goodlatte of Virginia. This immigration bill included changes to the H-2A guest worker program but didn’t offer a path toward citizenship for “Dreamers.” Despite this rejection, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) believes guest worker reform isn’t dead in the water.
But Rep. Davis’ opinion is not what the far right nor the far left truly want to resolve this issue. Despite the lack of political desire to tackle this issue, as Davis puts it, he is looking forward to having “another crack at this” hopefully in July but a timeline is still undetermined.
Watch NAFTA for Immigration Changes
Aaron Bernard, an attorney with the Bernard Firm in Des Moines, Iowa, that specializes in guest worker programs and immigration, believes these issues with guest worker programs are certainly something farmers need to watch but they should also a close eye on NAFTA.
The H-2A program is the most commonly used for ag labor but the TN Visa program, a lesser known program for educated guest workers who have at least a bachelor’s degree, is part of NAFTA. As part of the National Pork Producers Labor Security Council, Bernard believes when it looks like real changes are on the table there will be a substantial lobbying effort to ensure the provisions that are available to livestock producers and seasonal farmers won’t be harmed or substantially affected.
Bernard also says while boarder security is stricter and companies are being looked at a little closer to make sure there’s no illegal activities, the programs and availability have not changed. Farmers need to make sure they don’t make these two common mistakes when hiring foreign labor.
“There’s no laws that have actually changed,” he says. “There is more enforcement out there of the rules and regulations, but laws themselves really haven't changed.”
This is a hot button topic, as many Americans feel guest workers take jobs away from Americans. As Charlmers Carr, Titan Farms in South Carolina, says, “We would hire American workers if they were available. But unfortunately, we just don’t have anybody willing to do these jobs.”
This sentiment is all too familiar among farmers searching for labor. In some cases, people just aren’t willing to do the work but in many other cases, the people simply aren’t there. This is especially true in the rural Midwest. But even the current guest labor programs have their flaws, Carr points out.
“Unfortunately with agriculture today, there’s a lot of farming operations that can’t use the H-2A program because they’re year-round operations,” he says.
This is where the TN Visa program might help farmers with labor needs that require more than a laborer. In livestock operations especially, professional workers with at least a bachelor’s degree could be a better solution for farmers. This program is through NAFTA, which means only workers from Mexico or Canada are eligible, and it offers a three-year continuous visa that is renewable indefinitely. But with any government program, there are rules and regulations.
The bottom line is farmers need labor and they need guest workers programs that allow them to get the job done without harming our country or the ag industry. Staying up-to-date with these issues is important for farmers. Nothing has changed yet, but Bernard says to watch this ongoing situation.
Learn more about the difference between the H-2A and the TN programs along with some resources by clicking here.