September 20, 2017
In recent months, members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) have viewed with growing concern a series of policy proposals and actions aimed at reducing the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States and maintaining the agricultural workforce without providing those individuals a mechanism for attaining legal status. These efforts not only cause fear and strife for immigrants, migrants, refugees, and farmers across the country, they also risk exacerbating rather than solving the problems associated with our immigration system.
Many American farmers and ranchers rely on immigrant labor, and immigrants count on the American agricultural industry to provide meaningful, well-paying jobs. Given the importance of this relationship, and in response to recent immigration actions, NSAC members have developed a brief statement on the current situation with respect to immigration and agriculture.
NSAC stands with immigrant, refugee, and migrant communities in a joint effort to realize a safe, vibrant, and respectful United States, including a just immigration system. We cannot have sustainability in agriculture and rural communities without ensuring that the health, safety, and basic needs of all are met. Along with sustainable use of natural resources, sustainable agriculture also includes economic viability, vibrant rural communities, and high quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and farm workers. To achieve these goals we need safe communities, an adequate workforce, and a culture of respect, all of which are being threatened by caustic, hateful, and hurtful rhetoric aimed at immigrants, refugees, and migrants.
This statement underscores NSAC’s belief in the dignity of all human beings, and affirms the important role that immigrant, migrant, and refugee communities play in agriculture and in rural American communities. This is a living document that may be revised to address future issues as they arise.
NSAC’s statement on agricultural immigration stands alongside our existing immigration reform principles and detailed proposal. These principles, originally adopted in 2013, outline the Coalition’s vision for a fair and effective agricultural immigration policy.
A socially just farm labor policy is a basic element of agricultural sustainability, along with environmental stewardship and economic viability. We start from recognition of human dignity as a core principle for immigration reform. An agricultural immigration policy that treats workers as indentured servants and production inputs and not as members of families and social networks cannot be sustainable.
Legislation to Watch in Congress
Numerous immigration proposals have been introduced in Congress in recent months, and none are comprehensive in nature. Many have deep flaws and do not provide a path to legal status for undocumented individuals or do not sufficiently address the labor shortage issue.
The House Agriculture Appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2018, for example, includes a rider authored by Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA), that would potentially help a small segment of agriculture (especially large dairy farms), but would do nothing to address the larger problems faced by undocumented migrant and seasonal workers in other sectors. This rider is potentially harmful because it could derail efforts at a more comprehensive approach to agricultural immigration reform by splitting off dairy farmers from the larger group of producers who are seeking changes to current policies on agricultural immigrant labor.
Another example of immigration legislation that fails to see the forest for the trees is the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 3711), which was introduced by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and Congressman Ken Calvert (R-CA). The bill would require US employers to check the work eligibility of all future hires through the E-Verify system, the federal system that electronically checks a prospective employee’s ability to legally work in the United States. Currently, E-Verify is a voluntary program. An estimated 70 percent of current agricultural workers are undocumented; making E-Verify mandatory without also developing a legal pathway for the current workforce would devastate American agriculture. Because this legislation fails to address the immigration status of a vast majority of our current agricultural workforce, nearly all in the industry (employers and worker advocacy organizations alike) oppose the legislation.
Perhaps the most concerning news related to agricultural immigration legislation is that Congressman Goodlatte will soon introduce a new version of the Agricultural Guestworker Act. According to a September 2017 op-ed by Goodlatte, “the current agricultural guestworker program, known as the H-2A program, is expensive, flawed, and plagued with red tape.” We don’t disagree. But this legislation will likely be similar to a version of a bill that he introduced in 2013, which was devoid of any provision for a path to citizenship for the current workforce, or for future workers in agriculture. That bill also proposed to move the guest worker program from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture and eliminate the current H-2A requirement that employers provide transportation, housing, and a certain income standard without proposing alternative remedies to ensure fair wages and conditions.
NSAC believes comprehensive immigration reform is necessary to develop a path to legalization for existing undocumented immigrants, and allow for an annual influx of legal immigration (at all skill levels) that adequately serves the needs of American industries including farming.
We encourage Congress to consider our agriculture immigration principles as it debates legislation to reform our current immigration system.