White House, USDA work agricultural side of immigration debate

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 29, 2013 - A recently released White House report underscores the Obama administration's desires to achieve comprehensive immigration reform by showing the importance of the legislation in the agricultural sector. 

The White House report contains a series of studies showing the prominence of noncitizen farmworkers in various industries throughout agriculture. According to the report, nearly half of all crop and livestock workers, 43 percent, are noncitizen workers. The White House said this demonstrates why agriculture would be helped by immigration reform and said the industry could be hindered without any changes to the law. 

Globally Positioned Agriculture

“Without providing a path to earned citizenship for unauthorized farmworkers and a new temporary program that agriculture employers would use, a significant portion of this farm workforce will remain unauthorized, thereby susceptible to immigration enforcement actions that could tighten the supply of farm labor,” the report reads. 

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also rose to push for comprehensive immigration reform, saying a lack of action will be detrimental to both agriculture and the economy as a whole.

“The lack of labor will today - and will in the future if it continues - result in a decrease in agricultural production (and) a decrease in agricultural outputs and exports, which obviously will cost farm income and jobs in the economy,” Vilsack said Monday afternoon. 

When asked to defend provisions in the Senate immigration bill that allow for an earned pathway to citizenship for previously undocumented workers, Vilsack underscored how this pathway would have to be earned and wouldn't be a road easily traveled. This pathway would include financial penalty for entering the country illegally, which Vilsack said is “very consistent” with how legal infractions are handled with current citizens. It would also require proof that of a lack of criminal history, making an effort to learn the english language, and payment of back taxes. All things considered, Vilsack said this pathway could take anywhere from 10-13 years. 

“When you understand all of that, then it's disingenuous to suggest that this is some kind of free pass or amnesty program,” Vilsack said. 

Vilsack repeatedly drew attention to a table within the report that shows how the Senate's immigration reform would effect the agriculture in all 50 states. The table, using figures compiled by USDA, shows the short-term ag production loss (in U.S. dollars) if immigrant labor is eliminated and how many jobs could be created in the year 2020 through comprehensive immigration reform. 

Not surprisingly, the state with the most at stake is California, who could stand to lose $1.73 billion - $3.12 billion according to figures from the American Farm Bureau Federation or could gain 9,426 jobs according to USDA figures. 

Vilsack said the opportunity to fix a “broken” system is crucial to efforts to keep American agriculture in America and to prevent producers from taking their operations elsewhere.

“Our system is broken,” Vilsack said of the current state of immigration affairs. “As a result of the broken system and the insecurity that people feel, we're beginning to see significant shortages of farm workers, which means that people are not getting their crops harvested. That, in turn, is making them make decisions about where they grow, what they grow, and how much of it they grow, which is directly impacting the amount of production taking place in this country.”

“If this continues over time, we're going to put food security at greater risk.”

The Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform June 27 by a 68-32 vote. The House has yet to pass their version of the bill.

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