Immigration and Agriculture: The Non-Colbert Debate

Created: September 24, 2010 12:19 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Today’s Congressional hearing on migrant labor in agriculture wasn’t just about Stephen Colbert. There was also a pretty serious debate over what type of reform is needed to get legal workers — particularly unemployed American workers — into agricultural jobs. Republicans on the committee argued migrant farm workers take jobs away from the unemployed. Of course, it isn’t clear Americans want those jobs anyway.

“America cannot continue to bring in low-skilled guest workers to compete with its most vulnerable citizens: the poor whites, the blacks, and the legal Hispanics,” Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said in her testimony, which was applauded by Republican committee members Steve King (R-Iowa) and Lamar Smith (R-Tex.).

Failure of United Farm Workers of America’s “Take Our Jobs” initiative, admittedly a tongue-in-cheek effort to give farm jobs to Americans, was used as proof of the agricultural industry’s need for migrant labor. “As the campaign of the farm workers has shown, there are some jobs that are not a good fit for people who are unemployed,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said.

The problem is that many agriculture jobs are seasonal, meaning they require workers to move around the country to find work. Migrant farm labor is also difficult and requires long hours at often low pay, with fewer rights than are afforded to other types of laborers. The system is not designed in a way that makes it attractive to American workers, argued Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers of America.

“Our society places all the risks and costs associated with a seasonal industry — featuring millions of short-term jobs — on the backs of the workers,” Rodriguez said. “If a worker is injured on the job or stiffed on payday, too often there is no real recourse. Is it any wonder that Americans don’t want these jobs?”

Still, the jobs are critically important to agricultural production in the U.S., said Phil Glaize, who runs Glaize Orchards in Winchester, Va. Without workers, some agricultural production could halt, causing growers to lose crops and shut down. Glaize said the legal method for allowing migrant workers into the country is too slow and argued visa reform is necessary.

“Growers are forced to choose between using the broken H-2A guest-worker program which is bureaucratic, inefficient and downright unreliable, or hire migrant workers who present documents that appear to be ‘good’ but who may or may not be in this country legally,” he said.

Although about two million workers are needed to keep American agriculture running, only 5,000 visas per year are set aside for migrant workers, Lofgren said. Advocates of worker visa reform argue foreign workers should be allowed in the country to help spur growth in certain industries, including agriculture.

The AgJOBS would be one way to enact that reform, if comprehensive immigration reform proves impossible. The bill would allow two million farm workers to work in the U.S. eventually become legal residents.