Ag needs legal, sustainable supply of workers
We hear it all the time: Elections have consequences. There are impacts. Analysis of results changes the status quo. The ballots were not all counted before the voices across the country began to moderate on immigration reform.
Previously, many of these voices would have responded “amnesty” if they heard the phrase “immigration reform.” And then the narrative had shifted to secure the border and foreclosed all other discussion.
We should remain impatient and demanding as to border security, but it takes lots of tools. Certainly, one of the tools would be measured reforms for movements of labor back and forth across the border.
However fascinating the discussion of why this post-election conversion, let's skip that and simply appreciate the tone has changed, the volume is down a few decibels and perhaps more reasonable dialogue can take place.
Regardless of future specific outcomes, and they are likely to come in pieces rather than some grand bargain, agriculture needs a legal and sustainable supply of skilled and entry level workers. There is simply not a supportable argument that this labor can be sourced from domestic pools. Technology and robotics will reduce this demand, but only in the long term.
What was it some economist famously said about waiting for the long term? Oh, yeah — we will all be dead! Let me say it again: Agriculture must have sustainable injections of foreign sourced labor.
Now there is not only tension in this immigration issue, but step back and consider the whole issue of securing labor through the government. That has its own tension. As a basic premise, no one should need to seek permission from the government to work, but that is the system we have and that creates tension in solutions and overhead for government and employers.
Again, the fate of comprehensive reform is yet to be revealed. Nevertheless, the American Farm Bureau has been working on its piece for months developing a visa reform program for agriculture. I say “visa reform” because, although it is wrapped up in the axle of immigration reform, agriculture cannot solve immigration.
We can, however, advance plans that will help solve our labor issues. To this challenge, the American Farm Bureau plan deals with those out-of-status by developing work permits as opposed to pathways to citizenship — a measured response to the issue.
The plan is flexible to allow for views of other advocacy groups, but the key is to achieve unity in the U.S. agricultural community — something that has evaded us for years.
The plan is flexible to allow for year-round labor needs as well as the seasonal and to cover all agricultural enterprises and geographies. The plan is flexible to allow for labor markets to exist as well as contract labor, as these situations vary across the country. The plan allows for portability of workers, which is lacking in current agricultural visas.
The plan provides for market forces to work in the agricultural labor market, especially as to wages. Markets are imperfect and can involve rough justice, but there is no better system for capitalism than clearing wages through the market and not through a government program. Agricultural wages are an input cost, and all of our input costs are factored through global markets.
However, this is not a free-for-all. Remember, government programs are necessarily involved. To achieve visa reform, agricultural employers will see stepped-up enforcement in the workplace, and employers will be expected to do more to be part of the solution.
Joe Sigg is the director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau. For more information about the American Farm Bureau plan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.azfb.org.