National Immigration Forum spotlights agricultural labor shortages

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2012- Ralph Broetje, President of Broetje Orchards, which consists of more than 6,000 acres of apples and cherries in Washington State, may be 500 people short on his harvest crew this fall. He said many of the people he currently hires are new to agricultural work, lacking the skills and experience he needs. “They may last a day or two,” he noted. “But it's hard work.” 

“We're very dependent on the skilled labor force that is rapidly disappearing,” said Broetje, who noted he might have to leave 10 percent of his apple crop in the field this year. “It's getting worse every year. It will end up putting some work out of business if Congress doesn't step up and do immigration reform.”

As producers approach harvest, the National Immigration Forum hosted a conference of U.S. growers today to discuss their struggles with labor shortage. 

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“While the agriculture industry struggles with the current labor shortage at this critical time of harvest, Washington is ignoring the agricultural workforce crisis yet may consider immigration legislation to cut down labor shortage in other fields,” according to National Immigration Forum.

The Forum's Executive Director, Ali Noorani, noted that the House is expected to vote on immigration legislation that would reallocate visas to foreign-born graduates with U.S.-based degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform Co-Chair Craig Regelbrugge emphasized the point that “America needs STEM graduates, and America needs agricultural workers.”

“Our fruit supply shouldn't be a red or a blue politicized issue,” Regelbrugge said, declaring that pro-business Republicans should be doing everything in their power to prevent farms from closing, yet Democrats are stagnating immigration reform. “Both parties need to put politics aside.”

Faltering labor regulations are creating an unfriendly climate for agricultural businesses, the group of growers attested. 

“This state-by-state regulation with hyper enforcement is putting pressure on farming operations across the country,” said North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten. He said farmers are slowing down production of labor intensive crops like tobacco, fruits, vegetables and nursery items in North Carolina due to labor shortages and uncertainty.

He also noted that while farmers want to hire legal labor, a majority of skilled workers are undocumented. While it remains a priority topic for the Farm Bureau, he said politicians often avoid discussing immigration reform because it's a polarizing issue.

“This issue is so toxic, so controversial and polarizes folks so quickly that many candidates running for office shy away from discussion of it,” he said. “Candidates in the public arena do not want to have a thorough discussion or dialogue about this issue.”

The growers also claimed that current immigration efforts do not operate well and tend to isolate agriculture. Regelbrugge said work site audits are happening “at an unprecedented pace.”

“Although Homeland Security insists that they aren't targeting agriculture, it seems a disproportional number of these audits are hitting agricultural operations across the country,” he said. 

Vice President and Counsel of Farmers Investment Co. in Arizona, Nan Stockholm Walden, said the process for getting seasonal workers is “completely inadequate” in her state, including the H-2A temporary agricultural visas. 

“H2A does not work. It does not supply the work force that we need,” she said, also claiming that 2008 employer sanctions and Arizona Senate Bill 1070 “have created a climate of fear among employees and potential employees.”

“It's led to people leaving our state and going to other states without these legal clouds hanging over employers' heads,” she said, also noting that Canada has a “more friendly agricultural worker program" and “there's never been a greater need for federal leadership.”

Additionally, Noorani called I-9 forms a “complete failure” where “skilled workers are pushed into the hands of unscrupulous employers who never had the intention of obeying immigration laws.”

Although Walden said she thinks citizens in her state are noticing immigration laws' impacts on agriculture, Vice President of Marketing at Torrey Farms Inc. in New York, Maureen Torrey, noted that less than 1/10 of the nation's voters represent agriculture. 

She said when elected government officials meet with farm groups, immigrant labor is the top issue brought to the table, but in the public “no one's looking at the skills we need or the people that we need to work on our farms.”


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