What Does Your Food Have to Do With Immigration Reform?

New immigration proposals stand to substantially affect U.S. agriculture.
How does your produce get to your plate? Someone picks it, of course. (Larry Dale Gordon/Getty Images)
Jun 7, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

When you bite into an apple or slice a tomato, do you think of the person who picked it? New proposals in Congress suggest you should.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in its June 2012 issue of Amber Waves that Congress is considering changes to immigration law related to non-native farmworkers. If any one of the current proposals is enacted, it's likely to have "a substantial impact on U.S. agriculture and the market for hired farm labor," the article states, adding that unauthorized migrant workers "constitute a large share of the farmworkers employed by U.S. agriculture." 

Over the past 15 years, about half of crop workers have been unauthorized and mostly from Mexico. 

That comes as no surprise to most Americans—even the non-political among us were drawn into the issue when comedian and television host Stephen Colbert took on immigrant labor with his tongue-in-cheek Take Our Jobs "campaign," urging Americans to join him in the fields. (Only 16 Americans took him up on it.)

The proposals interweave two complex and highly contentious issues in American politics: high unemployment and undocumented immigrants.

On the one hand, people on both sides of the argument can agree that immigration policies are complicated and in need of solutions. On the other hand, will reducing immigrant labor literally bite the hand that feeds us?

In its article, the USDA address two main proposals. Here's how they break down:

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011

This bill aims to modify the federal H-2A visa program, which allows agricultural employers to hire temporary immigrant labor in times of shortage.

Among the changes: freezing the current wage rate, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), at its January 2011 level.

The AEWR keeps wages at a level set by the Feds to prevent employers from offering pay so low that it dissuades native-born Americans from working in agriculture. 

If Congress fails to establish a new wage standard within three years of the bill's enactment, the AEWR would go up—but no more than four percent a year. 

The other goal of the proposal is to make it possible for goat herders, sheep herders, and dairy workers to apply for permanent residency in the U.S. if they meet certain conditions. Under the current system, dairy, livestock, and nursery operations generally don't have the option of hiring H-2A workers, since the rules specify they're for temporary and seasonal workers. 

The Legal Workforce Act

Focusing on the legal status of farmworkers, this bill would require employers across all sectors—agriculture included—to use the Department of Homeland Security's E-verify system to confirm that new hires are eligible for employment.  

Sounds simple enough, right? But that's just half the story. To find out how the proposals would affect the economy, both agricultural and across other sectors, read the full Amber Waves article, "Immigration Policy and Its Possible Effects on U.S. Agriculture."

Do you think the new proposals will help or hurt farmers if they're enacted?

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