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How Immigration Reform Affects Farm Labor

Three-quarters of the U.S. farm labor workforce are immigrants.

American agriculture needs nearly two million hired workers to keep up with production, according to a study by the American Farm Bureau Federation. Farmers and their employees have worked on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure our food supply chain remains intact. The majority of the essential workers who help farmers achieve this endeavor are not U.S. citizens, meaning agriculture is particularly sensitive to immigration policy and changes with reform.

legal status of hired farm workers

Nearly half of hired crop farmworkers lack legal status, while the remainder are either U.S. citizens or authorized noncitizen workers. Only four percent are immigrants who were able to obtain U.S. citizenship. Noncitizen workers are authorized through the H-2A work visa program which offers limited relief for farmers seeking necessary labor.

On Inauguration Day, the Biden administration celebrated by taking action on immigration reform through the release of an executive order that outlined a path to citizenship for farmworkers, in turn, creating both deliberate and unintended results for U.S. agriculture.

Keep reading to learn more about this new piece of legislation and the potential impacts it will have on American farmers and consumers.

What is the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021?

The executive order signed by President Biden on January 20th aims to strengthen the incentives and protections for essential immigrant workers and “dreamers”—undocumented immigrant children.

This legislative bill proposes a fast-tracked path to citizenship for undocumented residents and temporary visa farmworkers. Undocumented farmworkers in the U.S. would be able to gain legal status upon passing a criminal background check and showing they worked at least 100 days in agriculture for four out of the last five years. In addition, it authorizes increased funding for border security to expedite the screening process and increase identification of narcotics and other contraband at all ports of entry.

While an executive order does not require congressional approval, many say the ambitious bill still has a long road ahead as some political leaders refer to its passage as a “herculean task” when considering the political capital needed to maintain it. It also isn’t the first attempt to address immigration reform. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act introduced at the end of 2019 was proposed to address discrepancies in the H-2A program to lengthen the time visa workers could stay and establish a pathway to citizenship. The act was passed through the House before swiftly dissolving in the Senate.

The Connection Between U.S. Agriculture and Immigration Reform

The recently proposed immigration reform bill has ambitious goals, such as reducing green card backlog, shortening wait times for visas, recapturing unused visas, and increasing per-country visa caps—all of which would theoretically streamline the H-2A program that many farmers rely on to maintain operations.

Farmers who are impacted by these programs generally support a path to citizenship for migrant farmworkers. Those who participate in H-2A often work alongside the same workers year after year and consider them to be an extension of their family while understanding how vital they are to the success of their farm operation.

It is estimated that the U.S. Citizenship Act would legalize an estimated 11 million people and increase the number of migrant farm labor available through incentivization. However, an unintended consequence of this bill is its potential to increase input costs for farmers. Labor is a farmer’s third-highest expense, accounting for 13 percent of average crop production costs and nearly half of costs for more labor-intensive sectors, such as fruit, vegetables, and horticulture.

Moreover, food prices for U.S. products could increase and put American farmers at an unfair trade disadvantage. Immigration reform is a welcomed change to address farm labor challenges in agriculture and should be developed with both the farmer and worker in mind without compromising the needs of either.

A multilateral examination of immigration reform is necessary to develop policies that benefit the agricultural community as a whole without straining an already volatile yet essential industry.

When the American Farm Thrives, We All Do.

Founded with deep agricultural roots, AgAmerica carefully monitors economic and legislative issues related to agriculture through the lens of our nation’s farmers and ranchers. We understand their essential role in our society and proudly advocate for a thriving future for family farm operations across the country.

A partnership with AgAmerica means having a lender who is invested in the long-term success of your agribusiness and who is willing to go the extra mile to provide the resources that support your operational endeavors.

Visit our resource library of digital farm publications to learn more about important agricultural and economic issues impacting our nation’s farmers today.

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