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In Our View: Address immigration reform to support farms

In Our View: Address immigration reform to support farms

In the News

The (Vancouver) Columbian

Link to the original article in the (Vancouver) Columbian

Link to the reprint in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

Link to the reprint in the Wenatchee World

Link to the reprint in the Longview Daily News

Leaving succulent Washington cherries and apples on the tree to spoil is not beneficial for growers or consumers. But that is the prospect as Congress persistently fails to address immigration reform.

“We still don’t have the U.S. domestic workers coming in to fill jobs,” Enrique Gastelum, chief executive of the Washington Farm Labor Association, told The (Everett) Herald this year. “No one is ready, willing and able to do that work here in Washington. In 2022, we had 33,000 available jobs and we had 11 U.S. workers apply for those jobs.”

That story is repeated throughout the nation. Migrant workers have played an increasingly important role in U.S. agriculture, but contentious disagreements about migrants and immigration policy have prevented reasonable reform.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2005 there were 50,000 visas issued under the H2A Temporary Agriculture Program. By 2021, 321,000 farm jobs were eligible to be filled by workers under the H2A program, but only 258,000 visas were issued.

That reflects the changing labor market and the urgency for serious reform rather than political talking points.

With that in mind, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, has helped introduce the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 4319). With five Democrats and four Republicans as early co-sponsors, the bill is similar to one that passed the House in 2021 but then was ignored by the Senate.

The legislation would alter the H2A worker program and implement an electronic verification program for agricultural workers. It would create a new legal status for farmworkers and family members who can prove they have worked 180 days in agriculture for the last two years; after at least four years of such work, they could apply for permanent residency and, later, citizenship.

The use of the E-Verify system can be particularly contentious. A federal database allows employers to check whether employees have a legal right to work in the U.S., yet only 22 states require its use for at least some jobs. Washington is not among those states, but local jurisdictions may require it for government jobs or contracts.

The program has many critics — even some elected officials who expend much oxygen talking about immigration. As surmised this year: “It’s been widely criticized by immigration groups and by some congressional Republicans, who argue it could weaken the agricultural industry, which relies heavily on migrant labor.”

E-Verify, however, is only one piece of the reforms that are needed to bolster American farmers and growers. Newhouse helped lead support for similar legislation in 2019 and 2021, and now he says: “The top concern for farmers and ranchers in Central Washington and across the nation is labor, and the problem is only getting worse. As a third-generation farmer, I know firsthand how challenging it is for the agriculture industry to hire and retain labor so we can continue to feed America and the world.”

Promoting programs that encourage migrant workers should not be conflated with “open borders” or unfettered immigration. Instead, it is about easing a path for workers who have necessary skills and a desire to use them in a manner that keeps our economy running smoothly.

As Jim Blair, president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, said: “The reality is access to a stable and reliable workforce is the only way we can continue as an industry.”

And it’s the only way we can get delicious Washington products from the tree to our tables.

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