Immigration Reform Failure Steers U.S. Toward Food Production Crisis

The U.S. House’s recent defeat of a second and more moderate Republican proposal to reform immigration demonstrates a failure to deal with one of the most significant economic, food security and humanitarian issues of our time.

North Carolina is one of many states whose economy suffers from that failure, yet few lawmakers have been more instrumental in exacerbating the problem than Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and the Freedom Caucus he leads. Meadows represents the state’s western counties.

The state’s agriculture industry is one of the largest in the U.S. In terms of value-added, it’s the top sector of the state’s economy according to an N.C. State study, contributing $84 billion in 2017.

Farming is an uncertain business in the best of times. But fewer hands to do the work has taken the place of the weather as many farmers’ number one worry.

After analyzing 15 years of North Carolina farm labor data, economist Michael Clemens concluded “There is virtually no supply of native manual farm laborers” in the state.  Even during the Great Recession with an unemployment rate in some counties in the teens, unemployed North Carolinians did not come forward for these jobs.

The pool of immigrant labor so essential to farm operations has dwindled as a result of tightened enforcement, deportations and the country’s utterly dysfunctional immigration laws.

The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018 rejected in late June made no pretense of being bi-partisan. But unlike a more conservative bill defeated earlier in the month, it made an effort to find a compromise between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party.

Basically that compromise gave a form of legal status to young immigrants who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. Otherwise, it was a hardline bill that provided money for a border wall, decreased legal immigration and raised the bar for seeking asylum in the U.S. The negotiations leading up to the votes on the two bills were contentious and sometimes angry, including a shouting match on the House floor between House Speaker Paul Ryan and Meadows, whose caucus pretty much scuttled the compromise bill. Granted, it was a bad bill, but the need for reform is desperate.

For farmers, the greatest disappointment came in the failure to address their need for a fair, workable and legal way to employ immigrant labor to do the work for which there is no native-born labor pool. Though not included in the final bill, an earlier proposal that would have helped farmers would create a new guest worker program to replace the cumbersome, costly and inadequate H-2A visa program. Called H-2C, it would eliminate H-2A housing and transportation requirements.

But its most significant feature would allow experienced farmworkers already in the country without documentation a way to come out of the shadows and obtain a legal guest worker visa. Estimates are these workers represent 50 percent to 70 percent of the current farm labor in the U.S. This acknowledges the reality that without these workers, much essential farm labor would go undone resulting in lost crops and ultimately in lost farms, leaving Americans ever more dependent on foreign produce.

A report prepared for the Partnership for a New American Economy found that while just 14.5 percent of the fresh fruit Americans purchased from 1998-2000 was imported, by the 2010-2012 period, 25.8 percent was imported. For fresh vegetables, imports as a share of total spending climbed from 17.1 to 31.2 percent during the same period. The partnership brings together Republican, Democratic and Independent mayors and business leaders who support immigration reform.

The report found that labor challenges faced by U.S. farmers and the inadequacies of the H-2A visa program are a key reason why American farmers have been unable to maintain their share of the domestic market. The inability of U.S. growers to keep pace with rising consumer demand at home represents a major lost opportunity for many rural communities dependent on the agriculture industry.

This is not only an economic travesty, it represents both a food safety and a food security issue. This version of the H-2C proposal contains a “touchback” feature requiring undocumented workers to leave the country in order to obtain H-2C status. Most farmers oppose this feature because of the time, expense and risk of workers not returning. The proposal has other problems as well, but that’s a topic for another day.

Our immigration laws need to be fixed. The ongoing failure to do so leaves North Carolina farmers dealing with uncertainty and frustration and puts domestic food production at risk. Unless Meadows and the Freedom Caucus he leads become part of the solution, voters who care about domestic food production and about treating farmworkers fairly need to hold them accountable at the polls.

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