Immigration reform more than meets the eye for California agriculture

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

Farmers must work with government to incentivize workers. (Photo Credit: Allaninva2008)

Our friends at California Forward have their fingers on the pulse of issues affecting the state, and this week they turned their attention to a high profile, highly controversial topic: immigration reform.

At last week’s Immigration Works USA event, people gathered to talk the impact that an overhaul of immigration would have on the California economy, particularly the agricultural sector.

“It’s common knowledge that the majority of farm laborers in the United States are undocumented immigrants. Less commonly known is the fact that migrant labor has been on a steady decline. 

“I had losses last year due to lack of labor,” said asparagus farmer, Barbara Cecchini. “I think this year is going to be a tough year,” she said. Whereas she normally hires 150 to 200 workers seasonally, this year she only has 45 applicants.

The challenges facing agricultural labor supply are far-reaching and include – as cited by the event’s panelists – increased border security, fear of gang wars, improving economic conditions in Mexico, lackluster economic growth in the United States, and competing industries.”

Because of this shortage of workers that are willing to do the labor that puts food on our tables, farmers will need to incentivize the jobs that they need filled – and for what panelists on the Immigration Works USA event had in mind, they’ll need the government’s help.

“Overwhelmingly, the panelists agreed that ensuring a steady “future flow” of farmworkers must involve some kind of incentive, whether that’s a streamlined guest worker plan or expedited pathway to citizenship. 

“How far that goes is a product of what the politics will bear,” said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for Western Growers Association. “We just want something that will pass and will incentivize those workers,” he continued.

“I’d like to see a program that has a state-federal partnership,” said Mascarenas.

This isn’t necessarily that far beyond reason. 30,000 foreign workers are already working under temporary visas granted seasonally to agricultural workers. However, the process of utilizing the program, called H-2A, involves both time and money.

“Oscar Ramos, President of a Central Valley labor contractor group, said he’d like to be able to utilize a program like H-2A, but “there are financial challenges.” And it takes 45 days to complete the process.

In California, where so many of our crops are highly perishable with short windows of time for harvest, streamlining such a bureaucratic process is critical. “We don’t have the luxury of time with perishable products,” said Mascarenas. “


Matthew Grant Anson

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