By Tom Nassif
Every harvest season, U.S. produce growers have a narrow window in which the success of an entire year’s work is dependent on human labor. With some crops, this window is only a few days. But finding a secure, reliable workforce to bring in the harvest can be extremely difficult. Over the last decade, American farmers have floated many ideas for remedying this situation, but they haven’t been able to stir up the political will to change a broken immigration system.
Both political parties share in the failure to act. In 2009 and 2010, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, yet there was no action on immigration reform. Republicans, who claim to be solidly behind American farmers, have also dropped the ball on immigration, using the issue only to scare voters and win elections. Members of both parties clearly understand that farmworkers do not take jobs away from American workers, and yet they resist introducing reforms.
One exception to the impasse came in 2006. That year, both Democrats and Republicans agreed that the need was so great for a particular class of worker that they cooperated in finding a way to allow noncitizens across our borders. The legislation, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, created a new guest-worker visa program for foreign-born athletes entering the U.S. to begin careers in professional hockey, basketball and baseball.
It’s ironic that the very politicians who warn that foreigners should not take jobs away from Americans seem happy to cheer for young men who come from Venezuela and Voskresensk to play on U.S. sports teams. If Congress can find the will to change the law for one group of workers, why not for agriculture, where the need is far more desperate?
The Western Growers Association, representing the producers of 50 percent of all American produce, set out this year to educate Congress about the desperate need for a new agricultural worker program.
A national poll commissioned by our organization found that only 25 percent of respondents believed that immigrants who do farm work are a cause of unemployment.
The sensible visa plan we described in the poll would require farmers to first offer jobs to U.S. citizens. If they are unable to fill needed positions that way, farmers could then apply to bring in workers.
Our team shared the survey results with Congress, the Obama administration and the media, but they fell on deaf ears.
Voters understand that creating legal channels for farmworkers to temporarily work in the United States would allow for better control of the border and focus resources on those who pose actual threats to national security. It would improve the lives of both farm owners and farmworkers. Most American voters aren’t caught up in the harsh political rhetoric of immigration. Elected officials in both parties need only the good sense to listen and the will to act.
Tom Nassif is president and CEO of Western Growers. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. It was distributed by MCT Information Services.