Opinion: AGree sees opportunities to secure a stable, legal workforce for U.S. agriculture

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By AGree's bipartisan group of Co-Chairs: former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, former U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretaries Jim Moseley and Kathleen Merrigan and former U.S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator Emmy Simmons

There is reason to believe that we can move beyond the current political impasse and find solutions to address the need for foreign-born labor in U.S. agriculture. AGree recently convened leading voices on immigration, who laid-out several potential pathways forward.

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Reform has been elusive in this emotionally-charged debate. AGree's diverse advisors found common ground in 2014 when we issued consensus reform recommendations. With the issue front and center in the presidential campaign and a window of opportunity opening when a new President is elected, it was a good time to have an honest, open discussion about small steps, as well as systemic change.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shared recent data showing the number of foreign-born farmworkers in the United States is declining, as is the number of unauthorized workers from Mexico. Meanwhile, average real wages in agriculture are rising faster than for workers in other sectors and the number of H-2A certifications has risen dramatically, with the number of visas doubling in some states since 2011. Yet as one panelist put it, the shortage of agricultural labor has gone from being a priority to an urgent concern that's jeopardizing the success of farms. Some believe labor shortages may be a contributing factor behind increases in domestic spending on imported produce. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, U.S. spending on imported produce increased 79 percent between 1998 and 2012.

Many believe the current system fosters a black market with many negative effects. When demand for workers exceeds the supply, bad practices and abuses often result. Beyond the illegal labor market, succession plans hang in the balance on many U.S. farms where younger generations have moved away. Experienced, foreign-born workers could help to fill this gap if allowed to do so.

Agriculture could, several panelists argued, rally behind improvements to our current system even absent comprehensive reform. This means not giving up on legislation or circumventing the system, but rather, legitimately modifying regulations and programs in a commonsense way that eases labor pressures on agriculture. Much discussion focused on changes to the H-2A program. Options for action include: allowing for visa portability, allowing for more flexible movement and housing of migrant workers, and consideration of recommendations offered by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2012, such as allowing a single petition per season. USDA could assist in alleviating the burdens on an overwhelmed Office of Foreign Labor Certification at the Department of Labor. These were just a few of the ideas discussed.

Several panelists cautioned that the approach must be systemic. If we dramatically expand the number of workers allowed to legally migrate without addressing the status of many current workers, for instance, those already laboring in the fields may remain in the shadows forever. On the other hand, some fear that if we grant legal status to current farm laborers - as an isolated act - workers may seek employment in other sectors, exacerbating the shortage in agriculture. There are many interconnected issues that must be addressed.

Thoughtful, honest dialogue that brings real solutions to the table is critical to inspire and inform meaningful change. A new Administration provides an opportunity for diverse interests who care about the long-term viability of food and agriculture, including the welfare of farmworkers, to come together to support changes that will benefit the sector and our country.



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