Immigration reform is pivotal for the future of agriculture in the West


When farmer Kerry Mattics sunk several thousand dollars into building a bunkhouse for 12 workers to stay on his property during planting and harvest seasons, he figured the house would be useful for at least a decade. But by 2012, he had no workers to fill it up and his Olathe, Colo. fruit and vegetable farm’s productivity had dropped. (They now plant 5,000 tomato plants instead of 9,000 and 7,000 bell peppers instead of 22,000.) The reason: Mattics could no longer afford to use the H-2A visa program that brings hundreds of thousands of migrants to the U.S. each year for seasonal work.

Mattics had originally turned to the H-2A program back in 2008 because he couldn’t find enough workers – legal migrants or locals. But, he says, “It just got so expensive … (over four years) there were a lot more rules and regulations.” For example, when he started taking H-2A workers, he was required to first advertise in Colorado for his job openings, to give U.S. citizens a chance to apply. But now he has to advertise in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as well, which triples the cost. A few years ago, he and other employers paid transportation for H-2A workers from the Mexico border, but now, he's been told he has to foot the bill starting at the migrant’s home south of the border.

Migrant farm workers at Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California, Aug., 2013. Photograph by Bob Nichols, USDA.

Needless to say, the fate of worker visa programs, currently being discussed as part of immigration reform proposals in Congress, is a huge deal for ag. Many farmers are still seeing worker shortages because fewer legal migrant workers are available and the H-2A process is too much of a nightmare or too expensive to participate in. (It’s worth noting that Mexico’s improving economy is likely another reason for the labor shortage. Increasing wages and better jobs in Mexico mean less incentive for workers to come to the U.S. for agricultural employment.)

Nearly 80 percent of U.S. growers surveyed in 2011 said they had “harvest/packing labor shortages.” And as security measures ramp up and immigration enforcement cracks down, if the process of hiring workers isn’t streamlined, growers are likely to see even higher labor shortages. The West’s $68.1 billion yearly agriculture sales could take a hit, and produce prices could rise sharply.

Some growers have planned on unemployed American citizens taking fieldwork, only to see those workers quit after a few days or even a few hours. Mexicans Mattics employed over the years he says are some of the hardest working farmhands he’s ever had, but American workers, he says, just can’t or don’t want to deal with the physical hardship of working long hours in the elements. With a national unemployment rate of 7.3 percent and over 8 in four Western states, there’s still no overwhelming interest in these jobs.

Migrant farm workers at Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California, Aug., 2013. Photograph by Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

University of California, Merced, assistant professor of history, David Torres-Rouff, says there’s historical precedent for this dynamic. “Since the advent of the Bracero Program in 1942," he said in an email, "migrant farm labor has been racialized and re-racialized in successive generations, forming what now stands as an occupation tethered to racial Mexican-ness, economic poverty, and the presumption of illegality. In short, migrant farm labor is 'Mexican work' done for 'Mexican wages' in the eyes of your ordinary White American. Of course, migrant farm labor sustains families and nurtures community for those who ply the trade."

Of the crop workers surveyed by the USDA between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent were born outside the country. And half of the workers that the DOL surveyed were working without legal authorization.

The proliferation of big box stores that have low prices and that source produce from farms with huge output has made it increasingly difficult to compete for small growers. Yet the question of legal labor remains for many the biggest challenge in keeping up production and making a living. If the undocumented migrant workforce were to be reduced by 40 percent, and Americans didn’t suddenly show huge interest in these jobs, producers of fruit, vegetables and nursery products would see drops in output of up to 5.4 percent within 15 years, according to the USDA. The AFBF anticipated that California alone would see long-term losses of as much as $4.2 billion.

The political prospect for immigration reform, though, “continues to limp along just as it has for the last few months,” as a Washington Post blogger wrote on Thursday. The issue has been hotly debated in Congress since June, when the Senate passed a reform bill that would give at least 11 million undocumented immigrants a 13-year path to citizenship.

“The agricultural sector needs Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill to keep farming a viable economic activity in Western Colorado,” corn farmer John Harold recently said in an op-ed in the Montrose Daily Press.

White ex-tenant farmers in the Imperial Valley, California, 1937. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, courtesy Library of Congress and U.S. Farms Security Administration.

The bipartisan Senate immigration bill would phase out the H-2A program, or as Mattics calls it, the “paperwork nightmare,” and replace it with a more streamlined hiring process. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would raise income for immigrants and American workers by about $250 for the median American household. “Rather than replacing U.S. workers or reducing U.S. workers’ wages, increases in the number of new immigrants lead U.S. workers to specialize in tasks requiring stronger English language and other skills, raising their earnings,” reads a recent White House report in support of reform.

But reform is stalled, limping at best. “Immigration reform is still doable, albeit not in as sweeping a fashion as the Senate bill attempted,” Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this week that the reform won’t be in the form of the comprehensive Senate bill, and that it is not likely to happen before 2014.

In the meantime, “maybe we need to find something else to do,” Mattics said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s definitely not going in the right direction for the smaller producer.”

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. She tweets @taywiles.