Agricultural sectors that “had been in a blood feud for more than a decade” over immigrant labor issues have, within the last year, realized that “they needed to get on the same page — that if they didn’t hang together, they would hang separately,” says Tamar Jacoby.

The government’s E-Verify program for employers to check on applicant identity and work authorization — which Republican immigration hawks in the House wanted to make mandatory for all American employers — helped to coalesce various agriculture sectors and organizations toward a unified approach, she said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University.

Jacoby is president and CEO of Immigration Works USA, a national federation of 5,000 employers, including growers, working with agriculture advocates in Washington, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, to advance better immigration law.

She says “the looming threat” of E-Verify “concentrated a lot of minds really fast.”

With the GOP immigration hawks pushing for mandatory adoption for all employers, “Other Republicans started hearing from labor-intensive agriculture interests in their districts who were saying: ‘We’ve tried to hire Americans, and we can’t. Unauthorized immigrants are half our work force, and we have massive turnover. Bottom line — if you do this, you’ll shut down labor-intensive agriculture in America. If you do this, we’re out of business, and a lot of this business will end up somewhere outside the U.S.”

The looming threat of E-Verify also concentrated a lot of grower minds, Jacoby says, and “ag factions that had been in a blood feud for more than a decade were suddenly realizing that needed to get on same page.

“There were a lot of meetings, a lot of shouting, a lot of negotiations, with the upshot that the American Farm Bureau Federation has just completed a 9-month process of developing a unity plan. The hope is that unity within the 3-million member Farm Bureau organization will generate unity among the other ag groups, and intense negotiations are now under way.”

Meanwhile, she says, “After 10 years of waiting for comprehensive immigration reform, congressional lawmakers are starting to ask: ‘Can we fix some pieces of this now, rather than waiting for a complete remodel?’

“Interestingly, a lot of these are Republicans, who have been resisting any movement on immigration since George W. Bush was president. There are still things they don’t like about reform — but they’re starting to realize that, for business and other reasons, it might be a good thing to do. And there’s also an eagerness (by Republicans) to take back the lead on the immigration issue.”

Bottom line, Jacoby says: “In Washington there’s a whole new landscape. There’s a potential opening in Congress for unity, or at least a broader consensus among ag advocates. I don’t want to be too hopeful, but after being stuck in a frozen system for more than a decade, watching it begin to thaw is exciting.”

While the American Farm Bureau Federation proposal “is still under wraps,” she says, “most of the people who’re thinking about this agree that, for a workable unity plan, there are some key elements that are needed.

(See How would 'ag card' labor proposal work in Florida? and Farm Bureau unveils 'ag card' proposal for undocumented workers).

Long-term, short-term solutions

“Importantly, solutions are needed for both the short term and for the long term. There has to be some answer for the 1.2 million people already working on American farms, and there has to be a future flow temporary worker program that actually works, so employers can hire workers legally in the future. You shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to hire a farm worker — there ought to be a better system.

Research and Extension Center at Stoneville, visits with Gail Gillis, Mississippi State University agricultural economics research associate, and David Laughlin, retired MSU agricultural economist, at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association.

“If you ask growers, most are focused on the short term more on the legalization issue. But in the long run, future flow is much more important.”

Immigration is “an American workforce issue,” Jacoby says. “This workforce has been changing for several decades. American families are having fewer babies; our workforce is getting older – 75 million baby boomers are going to be retiring over the next decade.

“Importantly, the workforce much better educated — in 1960, half the American-born men labor force were high school dropouts; today, less than 10 percent of the American-born men in the work force are high school dropouts.

“But there still is a need for a lot of less-skilled, less-educated workers to fill a wide variety of jobs. The problem is that there are very few workable, legal avenues for unskilled foreign workers to enter the U.S.

“The H2A program is an avenue — but it’s bureaucratic, unwieldy, and most growers won’t use it. Meanwhile, our better-education American workforce is less and less interested in these kinds of jobs.”

If agricultural employers try to hire American workers for their jobs, but can’t, “They should be able to hire foreign workers in a quick, easy, streamlined, legal way,” Jacoby says.

“We desperately need legal foreign workers, but there’s no legal way for them to come here. Yes, we agree that something needs to be done about the 11 million illegal workers in the U.S. But the most important change we have to make is to fix the legal system — to create a legal immigration system that works — so we don’t have even greater problems 20 years from now.”

And in any reform, Jacoby says, there needs to be a provision for year-round workers, for enterprises such as dairies.

More predictability in wages is also a need. “It’s not that wages now are too high or too low — but that they’re arbitrary and unpredictable; it’s very hard for growers to plan and budget. H2A employers want a wage level pegged to the state’s federal minimum wage, which doesn’t fluctuate very much.

“One of biggest topics in debate the past year has been contract labor versus at-will labor. In the Southeast, most growers need workers all summer long; in the West, work tends to move from crop to crop, and employers want more of a market-based situation. Key to any plan is to meet both groups’ needs. Structurally, that probably means quite a change from the H2A program.

One of the “big ideas” in Washington, Jacoby says, is that “we need to take immigration away from the Department of Labor and give it to the USDA. The Department of Labor basically is not on the side of employers; they don’t grasp the complexity of agriculture. This change is in almost every plan being discussed.”

“If the Obama administration were to propose a comprehensive reform program, I don’t really see Republicans going for it, which would put us back in the same stalemate we’ve had for years. 

“I think our best hope is to play on the Republican impulse to start fixing the legal immigration system through step-by-step changes, solving some problems, building trust, and then moving from the easier problems up to the harder ones.

“I think ag is well placed now for irrigation reform,” Jacoby says. “E-Verify woke a lot of people up to agriculture’s specific labor needs, and a lot of smart thinking has gone into reform. After years of bad blood, agriculture is now more unified.”

hbrandon@farmpress.com