Ag business leaders press for immigration reform

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 11, 2014 - Agricultural business leaders made their case to Congress to pass immigration Tuesday on Capitol Hill, but after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in his Virginia GOP primary Tuesday night, all bets are off about whether House Republican leaders will even attempt to address such a “hot button” issue.

During a briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building, Cargill, Caterpillar and Farm Credit leaders said they need immigrant labor to run their businesses and their competitiveness is being put at risk without reform of the current immigration system.

Together we can feed the Bees"

Cargill Vice President of Corporate Affairs Mike Fernandez said the agricultural sector has a need for technical talent as well as low-skilled labor. “On one end there are jobs that not enough U.S. citizens are actually prepared for, and on the other end we have physically intense jobs that not many Americans want to take.”

Fernandez said Congress has a “golden opportunity” to create an immigration package that American business can support. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has indicated the House would move immigration legislation piece by piece, but the Republican-controlled body has few legislative days left this year to move on reform. The Senate passed an immigration reform package last year. 

As a consequence of labor shortages, Farm Credit East Senior Vice President Robert Smith said some farms are choosing not to invest in labor intensive crops like fruits and vegetables that have large market demand.

“There is increasing frustration in the countryside and among farmers and farm businesses that really want to make critical investments...and they're holding off,” Smith said.

He noted that 70 percent of the U.S. on-farm workforce is undocumented, and the immigrant workers support thousands of other jobs in the agricultural sector. “Immigrant workers are part of the economic engine of American agriculture,” he said, adding that most jobs in the food sector are off the farm and held by U.S.-born citizens.

Mark Peters, Caterpillar's senior corporate counsel, commented on his company's need for highly skilled workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM employees. 

“Since 2003, we've seen a steady decline of U.S.-born engineering graduates,” he said. Although immigrants are often more expensive to hire, “we are dependent on foreign nationals” for STEM talent.

In order to keep foreign nationals that receive all or part of their education from U.S. universities working at U.S. companies, Peters said immigration reform needs to allow companies like Caterpillar to attract “world-class talent.” He said foreign students too often take their U.S. degrees back home to work for one of his competitors.  He noted that 30 years ago, Caterpillar had one major competitor, but now, in China alone, there are 100 competing companies. 

“Our broken immigration system is creating an un-level playing field for attracting STEM talent,” he said.

From a political view, the president of the center-right American Action Forum, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, said this is the prime time for the House to pass new immigration laws.  Holtz-Eakin said if the House does not act, President Obama will likely issue an immigration-related executive order this fall and paint Republicans as anti-immigrant when they object. “If they allow that, they will have trouble in 2016,” he said, referring to the presidential election. 

In a related move, CEOs of several American companies, including Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Tyson Foods, Cargill and CKE Restaurants, wrote an open letter to Congress asking for immigration reform.

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