Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says American farmers need legal immigrant labor to keep production levels where they are now.
In order to convince House Republicans to support the S.744 immigration bill that was approved by the Senate earlier this summer, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has begun championing the immigration legislation, saying that without it many U.S. farmers may not be able to produce as much, or may decide to move their farms outside of the U.S.
Though it’s currently stalled in the House, the most recent immigration reform legislation would grant undocumented immigrants legal status in the U.S.
Congress is currently in its August recess, but during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Vilsack said immigration reform should be a priority when Congress resumes, since it “plays a key role in helping the agriculture section create certainty — and sustainability — in the area of labor.”
“Unfortunately,” Vilsack said, “today American agriculture is faced with a situation where producers are reducing and contracting what they are able to grow or actually moving operations outside of the country in some cases, simply because they do not have the assurance and security of an adequate workforce. That’s why comprehensive immigration reform is so important.”
In addition to boosting the economy and helping shrink the deficit, a study by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found wages for U.S.-born workers would likely increase if undocumented immigrants were granted legal status.
A July 2013 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. already contribute about $10.6 billion in state and local taxes. If undocumented immigrants were allowed to legally work in the U.S. that number could increase to $12.6 billion.
Talking to The Pueblo Chieftain, Vilsack said the immigration legislation had already garnered support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the largest business lobby in the U.S. — as well as from organized labor groups.
“If we don’t do this, you’ll see a drop in farm production and even agriculture migrate out of the U.S.,” he said.
Vilsack added that the California-based Western Growers Association has reported that 80,000 acres of fruit and vegetable production has already been outsourced to Mexico because that’s where the farmers are able to find workers.
House Republicans say they don’t want to back the immigration bill, saying it’s “too soft” when it comes to U.S. border security and are concerned it will give legal amnesty to undocumented immigrants.
But Vilsack and many Democrats say that’s not true and point out that the security provision would “lock in” undocumented workers since the U.S. would actually have stricter control over the border.
Vilsack explained that the Senate-approved legislation would allow undocumented workers to legally live in the U.S. by paying fines and passing background checks. “Everyone knows it’s not logical to try to identify, arrest and imprison 11 million people,” he said, adding that in order to gain U.S. citizenship, undocumented workers would still have to follow current protocol, which could take a decade or longer.
As of May 2013, the estimated number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. was about 11 million. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, many of these immigrants work in the lowest-paying and toughest jobs in the U.S. — the jobs most Americans don’t want.
In Georgia, for example, many farmers are increasingly unable to harvest all of the crops they have planted and have had to scale back on their crop production because they don’t have enough workers to pick and harvest the crops.
According to Vilsack, a review of the $7 billion farm community in Georgia found that the impact this scaled-back production has had on the state is around $320 million in lost economic opportunity and about 3,200 fewer jobs.
“What we’re faced with currently if comprehensive immigration reform is not passed and we’re not given the opportunity to have a workable guest worker program in particular,” he said, “I think that we’ll continue to see farms in Georgia particularly reduce their size, reduce their output and, as a result, reduce the money coming into our state economy.”
Jason Berry is the owner of Blueberry Farms of Georgia. He was on the call with Vilsack on Tuesday, and is one of eight business leaders who met with President Obama in June to discuss the immigration legislation. He said that if the immigration reform is not passed, Georgia will continue to see farms reduce their size, output and the money coming into the economy.
He added that farm labor, contrary to public opinion, is skilled work, and said “You can’t just take any guy off the street and have him be a good vegetable picker or blueberry picker. A lot of people look at it as a dirty job, a backbreaking job that anybody could get out there and grunt their way through it. But that’s not the case.”
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