Note: This story appears in the March 2010 issue of Top Producer magazine.
In small San Joaquin Valley farming communities like Buttonwillow, Calif., illegal immigration is a fact of life.
Buttonwillow's flat sprawling fields and orchards draw hundreds of farm workers each year. They come—somehow, someway—from Mexico and El Salvador to work the crops of cotton, tomatoes, corn, onions, carrots, cabbage, wheat, pistachios and almonds.
Despite the seemingly legal documents presented to farmers, this foreign-born workforce is likely 75% unauthorized.
That's the reality of the hired farm labor force across the U.S. today, says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
Regelbrugge is among those leading the charge for immigration reform and an overhaul of the guest-worker program.
"No issue is as fundamental to the survival” of American agriculture than reform, says Regelbrugge, who also serves as vice president of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscape Association.
But Regelbrugge's hopes for success aren't likely to come to fruition in 2010. Overshadowed by the health-care debate, high unemployment and a struggling economy, attempts to overhaul immigration and the guest-worker program have not gone far. Washington insiders say there's little chance that Congress will address the two highly charged issues before November's congressional elections.
In the meantime, U.S. farm operations must deal with rigorous new federal efforts to address undocumented workers.
Tightening labor laws. In February, the U.S. Labor Department released new rules for the H-2A, or Temporary Agricultural Worker, Program.
Under the changes, companies that seek H-2A visas for ag workers must provide documented evidence that they have looked for qualified U.S. citizens to fill jobs. Previously, they only had to indicate they had looked for qualified workers.
The revised regulations also require employers to increase pay and provide more job-safety protections for the thousands of foreign farm workers who are hired.
The new rules go into effect March 15, 2010.
"Given the realities of a U.S. hired farm labor force that is 85% foreign-born and as much as 75% unauthorized,” Regelbrugge says, "many are left to wonder how regulatory changes that make a program even more complicated to use will help to ensure a legal and stable farm workforce.”
I-9 Audits. Until last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used high-profile raids at workplaces to crack down on illegal immigrant employees. Starting in 2009, however, ICE shifted its focus. It's now auditing employers over hiring practices in an effort to root out illegal workers. In November 2009, four Vermont dairies were among 1,000 employers nationwide that received ICE audit notices.
The audits involve a review of Form I-9, which employers are required to complete and retain for each employee. The forms must show each employee's identity and work eligibility.
Shrinking Labor Pool. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that the unauthorized immigrant population living in the U.S. declined to 10.8 million in January 2009, down from 11.6 million in January 2008 and nearly 12 million in 2007. The troubled economy and increased enforcement efforts could account for the decline.
Ag Keeps Asking. Agriculture advocates continue to push for a stable labor supply; they have been begging Congress for a guest-worker solution for nearly 15 years, Regelbrugge says.
The solution for many farmers is the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, better known as the AgJOBS bill.
"AgJOBS is worth fighting for,” Regelbrugge says. "It is the only practical way forward.”
AgJOBS would provide an effective, legal means for foreign laborers to work in the agricultural industry, Regelbrugge says. The proposed legislation offers a two-part solution:
1) a long-term resolution with sweeping guest-worker, or H-2A, reforms;
2) a "bridge” that offers experienced farm workers an opportunity to earn legal status in the U.S.
AgJOBS does not guarantee citizenship for immigrants nor does it prohibit a foreign worker from someday achieving U.S. citizenship.
In 2003, AgJOBS was reintroduced into Congress. The bill has strong bipartisan support, which positions it uniquely, Regelbrugge says.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has reiterated his administration's strong support for congressional action to repair America's broken immigration system. Respected leaders from both parties, he said, must stand up and counter the voices from the extremes on both sides.
Regelbrugge says farmers also need to speak up for AgJOBS.
"Mobilize support in your own world,” he urges. "Let civic groups, such as the local Rotary Club, know the value and importance of immigrant workers to your business and the economy.”
Catherine Merlo is Western and online editor for Dairy Today.