October 14, 2022
By Matt O’Brien
Citing labor shortages and rising production costs, the agricultural lobby is once again pushing the federal government to pass legislation that would increase the number of foreign agricultural workers permitted to enter the United States.
The existing agricultural worker program – known as the H-2A nonimmigrant visa – admits laborers to work for a specific employer, for a set period of time, at a designated wage. Additionally, the farms that sponsor H-2A workers are required to provide them with free housing. These requirements permit the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to keep tabs on foreign workers and ensure that farmers aren’t using the program to artificially depress wages for agricultural labor.
Changes to the existing program have been proposed in the form of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA). The FWMA would allow illegal aliens who have performed farm labor to apply for a new “Certified Agricultural Worker” status, valid for 5.5 years. In essence, the U.S. would be rewarding foreign law-breakers who happened to work on farms with a lawful status and a path to citizenship.
Over-and-above legalizing illegal alien farm workers, the FWMA would increase the number of H-2A visas. And, rather than tying agricultural laborers to a specific employer, the act would allow H-2A workers to apply for “portable status” that would enable them to change employers at will. Finally, the legislation would provide a taxpayer-funded subsidy to reduce the housing costs incurred by farmers using the H-2A program.
As it is, workers admitted to the United States on H-2A visas are subject to minimal vetting, at best. In the flood of applications that will inevitably accompany any type of new program that drastically expands access to agricultural worker status, the accuracy of background checks isn’t likely to improve. That is a major problem, given that most agricultural workers come from developing countries that don’t have robust electronic records systems. That makes them difficult to vet under the best of circumstances.
Take into consideration the fact that, if this bill were to pass, DHS would likely be under significant pressure to ensure a steady supply of farm laborers and you have a recipe for disaster. Americans in agricultural communities could be exposed to foreign criminals and terrorists that the U.S. government has unwittingly permitted to live and work here. If you think that crime is an urban phenomenon that citizens of rural communities don’t have to worry about, recall that Mollie Tibbetts was kidnapped, raped and murdered by an illegal alien farm worker in Brooklyn, Iowa.
Moreover, it’s profoundly distasteful that the farm lobby is begging for additional subsidies at the expense of the American taxpayer. Agriculture is already the most heavily subsidized industry in the United States. Government payouts to farmers have averaged $16 billion per year over the last decade. These include things like government purchase of crop surpluses; price supports for wheat, corn and milk; and taxpayer-funded crop insurance. We know that most of this doesn’t go to small, family-owned farms – just 1.6 percent of the U.S. workforce is composed of farmers and ranchers. The bulk of these subsidies go to corporate “Big Ag.” Just how much of their operating costs do billion-dollar multinational agricultural companies expect American taxpayers to underwrite?
And make no mistake about it – foreign farm labor is just another subsidy. Major agricultural producers regularly argue that they can’t find American workers willing to perform agricultural labor at wages farmers can afford to pay. That argument is always followed by the claim that raising farm wages would increase the costs of fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy to levels Americans won’t accept.
However, that contention is baseless. Study after study has found that even large increases in the wages paid to agricultural laborers would result in negligible increases in food costs. For example, in 2020, the Economic Policy Institute found that a 40 percent increase in farm worker pay would raise the cost of agricultural produce just $25 per household.
If America’s agricultural giants want to stay in business, then they need to start doing what every other industry does – offer competitive wages and/or innovate. In terms of innovation, agriculture has been stagnant for decades. Instead of asking why they can’t find enough laborers, growers and ranchers should be asking why they need so much manual labor.
Laborers in virtually every other industry are worried about their positions being made irrelevant by automation. Big Ag, however, has shied away from developing new agricultural machinery because it’s significantly easier to just hire foreign farm workers. However, that approach only works when foreign agricultural laborers have a motivation to come to the U.S. There’s no guarantee that will always be the case. During the Great Depression, American growers and ranchers left the Dust Bowl in droves to go work on farms in Canada and Mexico.
The real reason America’s agricultural producers can’t find U.S. laborers is because they aren’t willing to pay competitive wages. Increasing the number of foreign farm workers allowed into the U.S. – and letting them work for any employer once they are here – would only give the agricultural industry a free pass to continue undercutting wages. That is simply unacceptable. If the United States wishes to plant the seeds of a robust agricultural industry that can harvest the benefits of technological innovation, then we need to send a clear message to our major farming and ranching corporations – no more foreign agricultural workers.
Matt O’Brien is the director of investigations at the Immigration Reform Law Institute. He is a former Immigration Judge and previously served as a division head at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Also published at The Hill, October 14, 2022.
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