Saturday, December 16, 2017
Opinion

Column: Farms need immigration reform to survive (w/video)

The farmers who make up Florida's $8 billion agricultural industry are leading a call to action on Congress to follow through on promises for a meaningful immigration reform bill.

Last year we saw progress on this pivotal issue, and now it is time for Congress to act. The current system needs an overhaul. Bipartisan immigration reform must include enhanced border security, a fair and streamlined system of legal immigration and a guest worker visa program that will expand the flexibility of our nation's labor force and grow our economy, while also reaffirming our commitment to building an innovative workforce for the future.

For farmers who have been awaiting reforms for years, they know all too well the consequences of living with outdated immigration laws. Our industry has long been a beneficiary of immigrant labor, and a government-sponsored worker visa program presently exists to assist in employing farm workers.

The H-2A visa was designed to give farmers experiencing labor shortages an avenue to hire immigrant workers. Employers using the visa program must go to great expense to fulfill the requirements, and in turn find the program not flexible enough to fit agriculture. For many farmers, the cost and risk is simply not worthwhile.

As a result, we have come to rely on immigrant labor — 70 percent of which is in undocumented status. Regardless of status, this experienced workforce is integral to our farms and losing it, with no access to a replacement labor force, would be devastating to the industry.

What the country sees as a result is farmers either reducing their crops as they have no workers to harvest the products, or they grow items that are highly mechanized, such as corn, soybeans and cotton. In extreme situations we are starting to see larger operations cease U.S. production and focus their efforts on overseas crops. Regardless, the consequence to the consumer remains that more goods must then be imported to meet the demands of the marketplace.

Increases in imported foods result in a multitude of problems. First, any loss to our independence and ability to be self-supporting as a nation is a threat to our overall security. Second, these imported items will come at a premium that will be passed along to the consumer. Additionally, while the United States maintains food safety regulations and standards, other nations do not. To increasingly rely on imports in our food supply places us at greater risk to disease and illness.

For years farmers would point out that our country must either begin importing workers or importing food, and this is unquestionably accurate. The Partnership for a New American Economy has already found that farm labor shortages are leading to annual losses of more than $300 million. This number will continue to rise as farmers are forced to make difficult decisions about their operations.

By losing family and corporate farms, we not only introduce problems in terms of our food supplies, but we also damage the overall strength of our economy. As the Agriculture Workforce Coalition has found, every farm job creates or preserves between two and three additional jobs for American workers. These are more secure jobs than seasonal farm work that include the fields of transportation, manufacturing and sales. Our farmers make more than our food; they provide stabilization and growth to our economy and businesses.

This is why action is so critically important. Farmers have watched their profits rot off the trees and vines for years, and now the time has come for our representatives to act as leaders and advocates in securing our future through commonsense immigration law reforms.

Michelle Williamson, a strawberry grower from Dover, is participating in #iFarmImmigration, an agriculture-wide campaign to support immigration reform month. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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