There are a lot of them these days. Farm bill. Energy. Environmental issues.
The most recent — debated in the House last week — is immigration reform.
Think of immigration reform and you probably think of the U.S. border patrol, Democrats and Republicans fighting over the legislation or the southwestern part of the country. You probably don’t think of the Illinois Farm Bureau.
Still, just like the farm bill, trade opportunities and federal and state tax policies, the Illinois Farm Bureau is adding immigration reform, a potential political hot potato, to its list of important issues impacting Illinois farmers.
How important is it? Illinois produces more pumpkins than any other state and is home to Eckert’s Orchard in Belleville, Ill., which is the largest U-Pick apple orchard in the country. Not to mention the seed companies, dairy farmers and hog farmers who all call Illinois home. These diverse agricultural interests require a stable workforce to keep them moving, which often includes agricultural guest workers.
To illustrate just how important guest workers are, five Illinois Farm Bureau members traveled to Washington D.C. this spring to speak to their representatives about the importance of effective, common sense immigration reform.
Among them was Pat Bane, who employs six migrant workers on his Arrowsmith, Ill., hog farm.
“In early 2000, we had several employees leave simultaneously and we struggled to find people to fill that void,” Bane said. “We hired three migrant workers initially. Today, we have six migrant workers and they’ve been with me for more than 11 years. They’re patient and dedicated to their jobs. And they’re innately tuned in to the animals and the care that they need. That’s something I’ve had trouble finding in some American workers.”
Why won’t American workers fill some agricultural jobs? Because the jobs are physically demanding, out in the elements and temporary — something Bane said he knows all too well.
“In the past it was very difficult to find American workers who are willing to stick around and do the work that I need done,” Bane said. “For me, immigration reform is an issue not only because I’m looking out for my business, but for my employees as well. I’m looking for something that will allow undocumented workers, who have been committed to working in agriculture and helping produce food for consumers, to get a green card after a period of time.”
And Bane isn’t alone. Farmers across the state and country are working together to reform an outdated and overworked immigration system, and implement a program that assists farmers in finding, training and maintaining an adequate, legal and cost-competitive labor supply.
Currently, farmers rely on guest workers who are admitted under a government-sponsored program known as H-2A, as well as on workers who appear to be working in the U.S. legally. However, multiple regulatory changes and rigid administration of the H-2A program have made using and following the program nearly impossible.
The National Council of Agricultural Employers surveyed those who hire workers under the H-2A program. It revealed that administrative delays resulted in workers arriving, on average, 22 days after they’re needed. These delays caused economic losses of nearly $320 million — in spoiled produce and the like — for farms that hired H-2A workers.
Successful immigration reform would help resolve agricultural workforce shortages, as well as provide an incentive to keep guest workers in agricultural jobs, creating a more stable workforce. What’s more, a streamlined application system and workers’ ability to secure multiple-year visas would help farmers to better plan their workforce — a legal workforce— throughout the year.
In the end, immigration reform represents more than just a hot button political issue with lots of political finger-pointing. Immigration reform means a stable workforce. It means a stable food supply.