Without Immigration Reform, U.S. Agriculture Withers

farm visa

Stronger security at the country’s borders and an aging domestic population means labor becomes more expensive for farmers using immigrant workers to turn out the crops. The situation, which threatens the whole of U.S. agribusiness, compounds with immigrant reform inaction.

Arizona and California, states where undocumented farm labor is taken as a matter of fact, are the epicenters of the agribusiness effort behind immigration reform. In California’s Central Valley, University of California, Davis, estimates half the immigrant population is undocumented. Although the residential population of undocumented workers has made a reliable workforce over the years, the average age of these laborers is on the rise. One primary reason for this is the emphasis on border security. In other words, the risk-reward equation is unfavorable to potential immigrants who are younger and stronger than immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for years.

For farmers, the scenario is a basic economics equation. A lower supply of capable workers drives labor costs higher. And because farmers won’t absorb higher labor costs, consumers will see higher prices at the supermarket.

For agribusiness representatives, congressional inaction on immigration is a matter that lays squarely on the shoulders of the Republican Party.  The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the Western Growers Association, organizations with largely Republican memberships, are putting pressure on representatives to get reform measures off the ground before the end of summer, according to press reports. As Republican moves on immigration has largely come in the form of lip service thus far, the organizations say members are withholding fundraising contributions from the fence-sitters.

While some pundits say Republican inaction is a kind of golden key for President Obama to take sweeping executive action to bring undocumented immigrants into mainstream America, it’s worth remembering that such presidential action would also be tremendously polarizing. A presidential bypass of Congress works as an expressway in destroying good will.

For immigrants caught up in today’s agricultural labor struggle, it’s sure to guide the face of immigration over the next few years.