WASHINGTON — An immigration deal for the farmworkers who harvest the bulk of U.S. fruits and vegetables poses one of the most elusive, and essential, challenges to an attempt by lawmakers to recast the nation’s immigration laws.
As negotiators near agreement over future visas for lower- skilled and higher-skilled workers, programs for largely seasonal, lesser-paid agricultural laborers are still being negotiated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the United Farm Workers and groups representing companies including Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Sunkist Growers Inc.
With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, about 25 percent of the farm workforce is unauthorized — more than 300,000 workers without papers — according to a 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. This includes heavy concentrations in fruit and vegetable harvesting as well as workers in ranching, dairy and grain operations.
While farmworkers may have less economic impact than immigrants in manufacturing and other fields, they are ignored at policy and political peril, said Andy Novakovic, an agricultural economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. And lawmakers leading closed-door discussions in Washington insist that a solution for farmworkers must be part of any comprehensive legislation advanced this spring.
“Immigration is a very stark situation in agriculture — it’s not about whether your business costs are higher, it’s about whether or not you can harvest your crops,” Novakovic said. “For some lawmakers, agricultural labor will be essential for them to support a bill.”
A plan to revise U.S. immigration policy for the first time since 1986 may reach the Senate Judiciary Committee this month and the full Senate by May, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier this week. Talks that began in November have advanced slowly, as questions such as a path to citizenship for the undocumented and controlling border traffic without impeding the economy remain contentious in Congress.
Under the outlines of a tentative agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO that is part of the Senate negotiations, the government would open an employer-funded bureau to monitor labor-market data and oversee a new program of visas for lower-skilled workers.
Yet specific provisions for farmworkers, currently handled under the H-2A visa program, aren’t included in those talks. About 55,000 workers gained such visas in 2011 — 94 percent Mexicans, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The program, not subject to any numerical limit under the law, “has grown significantly over the last 20 years,” the Congressional Research Service has found. In fiscal 1992, fewer than 10,000 farmworker visas were issued. The number peaked at more than 64,000 in fiscal 2008.
A Department of Homeland Security rule says that the program is intended to provide employers with “an orderly and timely flow of legal workers, thereby decreasing their reliance on unauthorized workers, while protecting the rights of laborers.”
Among the top 10 crops attracting foreign workers in 2011 were tobacco, whose cultivators included producers from the Virginia Agricultural Growers Association, and hay, harvested by members of the North Carolina Growers Association and others, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report. The top crops also included oranges in Florida, apples in Washington and New York, onions in Georgia, sugar cane in Louisiana, and potatoes in Idaho.
Critics say the visa’s compliance rules — which require employers to prove that efforts to hire domestic workers were unsuccessful, pay government-set wages and provide housing — are too onerous.
Agriculture is distinct in that much of its labor force is migratory, involving multiple employers as harvests move south and north, says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform in Washington.
Even more so than construction, labor demand peaks at specific times of year, he said, and because many of the jobs draw little competition from native-born labor, wage and worker- protection issues become more complex.
Broad agreement exists for a visa program more market-based and flexible than H-2A, while sticking points remain over placing numerical caps on visas and wage rates, said Regelbrugge, whose group includes fresh-produce associations and farmer cooperatives.
Farm employers need a flexible enough cap on visas to ensure that workers are available to meet employer needs, said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, in an interview last month.
“The two biggest issues for immigration in agriculture will be the caps, and what the wage rates will be,” he said.
The United Farm Workers of America, the largest migrant agricultural labor group, contends that growers are trying to use the debate over immigration policy to erode wage gains workers have made.
“Agribusiness lobby power has kept farm workers excluded from every major labor law for decades,” said Maria Machuca, spokeswoman for the Keene, Calif.-based UFW, in an email. “It would be a grievous mistake to allow agribusiness to use the debate over immigration reform to further reduce wages of the poorest workers in the country.”
Broader immigration revisions may be difficult to achieve without a resolution of agricultural issues.
Democrats, who control the Senate, may have difficulty garnering the 60 votes needed for passage of most major issues in that chamber, and the Republican-run House poses an even greater challenge.
“I’m surprised that supporters aren’t leading with farm workers” because migrant laborers are seen sympathetically by the general public, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based institute critical of increased legal immigration. “It must be that they have something in mind, but they can’t get the Farm Bureau to agree with the United Farm Workers.”
Camarota is skeptical of the need for new programs. If farm-worker shortages do exist, it’s not showing up on store shelves, where fresh produce is readily available, he says.
Mechanization would alleviate some need for workers, and if wages in agriculture aren’t enough to attract native-born workers, migration overseas wouldn’t upend the U.S. economy, of which agriculture accounts for only about one percent, he said.
“I have a suggestion: Treat workers better and pay them more. But why would they want to do that?” he said. “Higher wages and mechanization, that doesn’t seem like something Washington is willing to consider.”
Without an agricultural component, an immigration overhaul may be unworkable as a practical matter, Regelbrugge said.
“If you don’t have an agreement over the ag sector, that undercuts a lot of other areas” where farmworkers may seek jobs without an incentive to stay in agriculture, he said.
That would place a burden on other visa programs without addressing illegal immigration in farming, traditionally an entryway into the workforce, said Regelbrugge.
Politically, “immigration’s a heavy lift,” he added, and “agriculture is going to be the pivot point for the decisions a lot of members make.”
In the House, where immigrant-heavy California and Texas hold 89 of the chamber’s 435 seats, many lawmakers will need a new farm-worker program to justify voting for a package, Novakovic said. Longstanding Republican demands for immigration revisions that tackle all aspects of the matter fall apart without a solution for agricultural labor, he said.
“For many lawmakers, ag labor is at the forefront of their issues,” he said. “They’re familiar with it. Casting it aside would run counter to their political behavior.”