The United States’ food security is being tested. Our farmers are struggling with an unprecedented labor shortage, droughts and extreme weather conditions, and now a war in Ukraine. All these factors are creating a shortage of essential supplies, such as fertilizer, feed for animals, and water, which is limiting production capacity, which in turn, is driving up prices for consumers at the grocery store.
Our national security is tied to our ability to feed ourselves. As former officials who served in the Bush administration, we see an urgent need to address the labor shortage in the agricultural industry by fixing our immigration system. That would allow farmworkers to contribute to the economy free from uncertainty and fear and keep food on the tables of America’s families at lower costs.
Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on a bipartisan basis. The bill was a compromise solution that would permit undocumented farmworkers to earn legal status through continued employment in the agricultural sector and would make critical reforms to the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, including streamlining the application process, and allowing for year-round temporary agricultural workers.
Hundreds of groups representing the agricultural industry, including the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the Western Growers Association, AmericanHort, and the National Milk Producers Federation, farmworkers’ unions and organizations, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers worked hard to forge a bipartisan compromise to make these reforms to our immigration system. It’s now up to the Senate, under the leadership of Senators Michael Bennett, D-Colo., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to improve upon those negotiations and bring a bipartisan agricultural workforce solution across the finish line.
America’s food supply depends on foreign-born workers. Ninety percent of dairy farmworkers are undocumented. Forty-nine percent of our nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers do not have legal status, even though most have been working and contributing to the agricultural economy for years and even decades. They do difficult, skilled jobs, all while living in fear of deportation. These essential workers kept food on America’s tables during the pandemic and we owe them an opportunity to continue earning legal status and citizenship to stabilize their lives while helping our economy by addressing the labor shortage and supply chain issues that contribute to inflation.
Doing nothing is not an option. Despite offering nearly twice the going wages, a farmer in central California had to let his strawberry fields go to waste because he couldn’t find workers to tend and pick the berries. In Wisconsin, a husband and wife shelved plans to expand their vegetable farm to six acres and stuck with the three acres they could manage on their own. Stories like these repeat themselves across the country.
Providing legal status and reforms to our agricultural guest worker program is a win for everyone. Producers would be able to retain and find experienced and skilled workers to harvest their crops and care for their animals. Workers would be able to join in the American Dream, provide a better life for their children, and travel back to their home countries to visit family without the fear of being denied re-entry into the U.S. American families would benefit from having consistent access to safe, healthy, and affordable food. And the nation would be more secure if we could feed ourselves without relying on other unstable regions of the world while also addressing the domestic labor shortages that are holding back our economy.
Politicians who want to deny legal status for decent, hardworking immigrants aren’t serious about finding solutions to our labor crisis. Any immigration solution for the agricultural industry must give workers the chance to get right with the law, commit to continuing doing agricultural work, pass a background check, and pay a penalty.
When the Senate passes a bipartisan immigration solution for the agricultural sector, it will not only address a looming crisis, but it will send a message to millions of farmers and ranchers during a period of tremendous uncertainty in rural America. Let’s not get stymied by the partisan gridlock in Washington. A bipartisan immigration solution for farmworkers represents a unique opportunity to make progress on a priority that is vital to the future of agriculture and our economy.
The current moment presents the best chance in three decades for immigration reform for the agricultural sector. With a negotiated, bipartisan approach, the Senate can seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Douglas Baker served as the Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Senior Director for Border and Transportation Security Policy in President George W. Bush’s Administration. He is a principal with Baker Global Advisory, a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration, and a member of the Texas Farm Bureau.