How ironic; the current unemployment rate in the USA is 10 per cent, very high for American standards, but at the same time, there is a labor shortage. In agriculture, specifically in the fresh produce sector American farmers have to depend on migrant labor. It is impossible to mechanize the production of vegetables, fruits, myriad nuts, dairy, chicken and meat, unlike corn and other grains. American families are no longer as big as they used to be; the younger generations refuse to toil and spin on the land of their forbears.
At a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Mrs. Linnea Kooestra, a dairy farmer from Illinois, testified that she had to sell 350 of her 500 cows because of labor shortage. Dairies operate the year round so guest worker programs have never been the solution for them. She dutifully advertises for farmhands, but sadly none of her fellow Americans have bothered to reply.
Members of the USA Senate Committee represent states with agricultural components like Illinois, California, Iowa, Delaware, Texas. They were parsing the 2021 Farm Workforce Modernization Act of the Biden administration which has already passed the House (H.B. 1603). In his opening statement, Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, articulated, “If you had watermelons on the 4th of July, thank Mario, Samuel and Juan who worked under 105 F weather, during the pandemic, without PPEs or social distancing.” He was alluding to the plight of migrant workers, a perennial issue sauced with heartaches
There were several programs in the past: The H 2A Guest Workers which began in 1917, imported temporary labor from Mexico during WW I, but before hiring migrants, farm owners had to prove they were not displacing American workers. Another program called “Bracero”, an agreement between Mexico and the USA for seasonal contract labor for agriculture, began in 1942, during WW II and ended in 1964. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was signed into law by Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1986. About a million non-documented immigrant agricultural workers who had entered the USA before 1982, were legalized. However, IRCA penalized those who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Sadly, all the above-mentioned programs failed to improve the lot of migrant workers who received starvation wages, had no overtime pay, no healthcare nor decent housing; they lived and worked under threat of deportation. As it turned out, IRCA was riddled with corruption, 70 per cent of its applicants were fraudulent. Moreover, once legalized, the majority of undocumented workers abandoned the agricultural sector to pursue their “American dream” in urban areas.
The 2021 Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H. B. 1603) seems to be a step in the right direction because it melds immigration reform with border control policies. Mr. Shay Myers, an asparagus grower from Oregon, testified that once he lost 85 per cent of his harvest because of a 90-day delay of migrant workers at the border. He stated that the fresh produce industries will disappear in a decade if hitches at the border are not ironed out. Mr. Sorensen of Iowa’s National Pork Producers added that due to rural population decline there are 500,000 vacancies which only migrant workers care to fill.
Senator Deanne Feinstein maintained that the wage rates should be calculated for at least a 9-year period so growers can anticipate the cost of labor, and that the $ 13 per hour rate has not changed in the last 3 years. Migrant workers should be protected against abuse and exploitation.
Two Republican senators accused the Biden administration of wantonly opening the borders. Aggressively, they bombarded the Secretary of Agriculture with questions about border security. Had he seen how “coyotes” lead rapists and drug addicts to rampage through farms of Texas farmers? They blamed Pres. Joe Biden and Vice-president Kamala Harris for changing Trump’s policies on the fly, castigated them for aborting “the wall”. Seal the border first, before the passage of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, they growled. Secure the border now, before legalizing one more migrant worker. The Republican duo claimed that 2 million illegal immigrants, carriers of Covid, have slithered into the USA.
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, committee chairman, asked Secretary Vilsack, rather innocently, “Are you the Homeland Security Secretary?” – to which Vilsack answered, “No, sir, I am the Secretary of Agriculture.” With that question, Sen. Durbin made it clear that sealing the border was not the Secretary of Agriculture’s mandate. House Bill 1603 aims to solve labor shortages in the agricultural sector without endangering the USA’s southern border. The labor-intensive sections of USA’s agricultural economy cannot survive without migrant workers, documented or not, from Latin America or elsewhere. Now, there are migrant workers from the African continent, the irony of ironies.