What does immigration reform mean to California agriculture?

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For the Central Valley, immigration reform would be felt immediately. (Photo Credit: rldock)

Immigration reform – two words with the power to cause involuntary nervous twitches among people gathered in mixed company. Each word is heavy enough but pair them together and it causes a chaotic collision of emotions, values, and economics.

Last week’s ImmigrationWorksUSA event, held at California State University, Fresno, honed in one very important economic component of the immigration reform debate: agriculture.

It’s pretty obvious why the national coalition staged this conference in Fresno, CA, the epicenter of California’s abundant agricultural economy. Furthermore, the city’s mayor, Ashley Swearingen, has been immersed in policy discussions on the dynamic issue. She was one of four mayors from across the nation invited by President Barack Obama to attend an event last month in Las Vegas where the President outlined his goals for immigration reform.

“This is such a mission-critical issue for the Valley,” Swearengin told the Fresno Bee last month.

The spectrum of immigration policy reforms being proposed from both sides of the aisle in Washington, DC could yield quite varied outcomes for the nation’s agricultural industry. This is of particular concern in California’s Central Valley, where a fragile economy relies upon a vibrant ag sector.

“Future flow… is a requirement for sustainable agriculture in the United States,” Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, said at the ImmigrationWorks USA event in Fresno. “We cannot overstate the importance of these workers,” he said.

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.

“If we want workers, we need to make the jobs attractive to them,” said Stephen Mascarenas, president of Mid Valley Labor Services.

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.

Mascarenas was responding to a discussion about the H-2A visa program, which grants temporary visas to seasonal agricultural workers and currently covers approximately 30,000 foreign workers.

While several of the event’s panelists and audience members—including producers, growers associations, farm management groups, and labor contractors—are using the H-2A program, many California producers find it prohibitively expensive, cumbersome, and time-consuming.

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. 

Staff members of several California Congressional Representatives and Senators were present at the event to learn more about the needs of their farming constituents.

Tamar Jacoby, President of ImmigrationWorks USA, said, “Your stories make a difference to your representatives. That’s what’s going to help them do it right.”

Another effort to create and maintain a sustainable flow of farm labor in California comes from Ag Innovations Network. They are a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the outcomes of California’s food and agricultural system. The group recently launched an initiative to develop consensus-based recommendations that will improve affordable housing and transportation access for harvest and production labor. The group’s goal is to minimize risk factors facing California’s specialty crop producers with regard to labor supply. The process is an outgrowth of the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s “AgVision2030,” a strategic plan for the future of the state’s food and agricultural system. 


Niki Woodard

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