Comedian Colbert focuses media attention on the need for migrant farm worker AgJOBS bill

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Sept. 24 - Mixing satire with serious concern about two million, often illegal, migrant farm workers, TV comedian Stephen Colbert focused national attention on the stalled AgJOBS Act, H.R. 2414. In a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing Friday, Colbert explained his concern about migrant workers “who come and do our work but don't have any rights themselves.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, opened the “Protecting America's Harvest” hearing by stating that “The American agricultural sector has long suffered from a lack of available U.S. workers to grow and pick America's fruits and vegetables. Even in today's tough economic climate, whether we like it or not, an insufficient and continually decreasing number of U.S. workers are willing to fill manual agricultural jobs. America's farms are dependent on a reliable workforce to produce our domestic food supply and today's farms are struggling to stay in business as a result as a result of current labor challenges.”

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Colbert, who spent a 10-hour day “picking beans, packing corn” in Upstate New York along with Lofgren, said that experience taught him “about the stark reality facing American farms and farmers.” He said “I learned that many farms are closing, growers are planting less or switching to other crops, and the production of fresh foods and vegetables is moving abroad. I learned that American farmers have moved at least 84,155 acres of production and 22,285 jobs to Mexico, and that between 2007 and 2008, 1.56 million acres of U.S. farmland were shut down.”

Another witness, third generation Virginia apple grower Phil Glaize, Chairman of the U.S. Apple Association, testified that he faces “the reality that we could lose a large portion or even a whole crop if willing and able pickers are not available.” He said “The bottom line is that for the apple industry and other industries ranging from strawberries to vegetables to dairy to survive, in Virginia and nationwide, we need a legal, reliable, stable and skilled workforce.” Otherwise, he warned, “Farms will convert to low-value grain crops or fail altogether. We will export jobs, we will import food. As this happens, it will likely happen just slowly enough that it won't receive the same attention as an automotive plant moving to Mexico or a factory going to China, but the impact will be the same - loss of jobs, loss of payroll and taxes, loss of dollars spent in our communities on equipment, supplies, and services.”

Glaize said the threat “is real, and worsening in the face of Congressional inaction,” with farms going out of business due to labor shortages. He said that for every harvest job lost when a farming operation goes out of business, at least three full-time jobs are lost, mostly off-farm jobs such as processing and distribution jobs. Glaize noted that “Colleagues in the West report that at least 80,000 acres of high-value vegetable production has left southern Arizona and California for Mexico. Florida tomatoes and citrus are leaving for Mexico and Brazil. In 2008, Texas A&M University noted that 77% of Texas vegetable producers surveyed had reduced the size or scope of their business due to lack of employees. One quarter reported moving some of their operations out of the U.S. Another third were considering such a move.”

Glaize concluded that “Congress and the President must address this problem now - for the future of Glaize Orchards and other businesses like mine. A common sense approach is needed both to reform the H-2A [guest worker] program and find a way to retain long-term valued employees. We must stop politicizing this issue and instead keep in mind that farms and businesses, jobs, rural economies, and our national food security are on the line. That is why I strongly support the AgJOBS legislation.”

Also supporting the AgJOBS bill which would provide eventual legalization for skilled migrant workers, United Farm Workers of America President Arturo Rodriguez called on subcommittee members to recognize the facts that:

  • “If you had a glass of Florida orange juice with your breakfast this morning, it is almost certain the oranges that went into that juice were picked by unauthorized workers.”
  • “If you had milk on your cereal, it is likely that the workers who milked the cows didn't have the right papers.”
  • “When we sit down every day to give thanks for our many blessings, most of the food on your table has been harvested and cared for by unauthorized workers.”
  • “Undocumented farm workers take jobs other American workers won't do, for pay other American workers won't accept, and under conditions other American workers won't tolerate.”

Rodriguez concluded that under the AgJOBS bill (The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act), “Because our current farm labor force is comprised of professional farm workers with essential skills needed to sustain the viability of the agricultural industry, AgJOBS would give undocumented farm workers presently here the right to earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture.”

Vanderbilt University Prof. Carol Swain offered a different view. Echoing several Republican subcommittee members, she maintained that “America does not have a shortage of agricultural workers. Instead, we have a manufactured crisis.” She said that “America cannot continue to bring in low-skilled guest workers to compete with its most vulnerable citizens: poor whites, blacks, and legal Hispanics. Often surplus labor that starts in the fields, migrates into other industries. Without this surplus labor, employers would be forced to pay higher wages and many would be forced to improve substandard working conditions.”

Rather than provide illegal workers a patch to legal status, Dr. Swain called for “enforcing existing laws and regulations” in order to “provide new opportunities for our native-born workers without waiting forever for immigration reform to make its way through Congress.”

To read testimony from Friday's House hearing on “Protecting America's Harvest” and the AgJOBS bill, go to:

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