On Sunday, the Associated Press reported worker shortages have prompted some Alabama farmers who grow labor-intensive produce to plant less, rather than have crops rot in the fields again this year. Last fall Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed a tough law combating illegal immigration, which prompted undocumented workers to flee the state. Few locals will perform the grueling work of picking crops, and farmers stuck in a agricultural system built on illegal labor are struggling to find replacements before their produce rots.
Alabama’s situation is not unique. Georgia passed a similar immigration law in 2011. When undocumented workers fled, farmers lost around 40% of their workers and $140 million worth of blueberries, melons, onions, and other crops due to labor shortages. This year Georgia farmers again fear they will be short on workers to pick the crops, and many have scaled back production or stopped planting altogether.
It’s not only Southern states; farmers all across America are dependent on migrant labor. For example, immigrants make up 40% of Wisconsin’s dairy industry workers and almost one in three U.S. farming and fishing workers is from Mexico.
There are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today. However, trends are shifting dramatically. Legal and illegal immigration from Mexico, which boomed over the past 40 years, flattened in 2005 and now seems to be decreasing, according to a 2012 report released by the Pew Research Center. Decreasing migration rates coupled with tougher state immigration laws are hurting America’s farmers, who rely on the labor.
Many farmers want to hire local workers, but it is increasingly difficult to find U.S. natives with the proper skills. Few are willing or able to perform the physically taxing and low paying labor which requires them to move with the crops, even with wages of $15-$20 an hour. Georgia recently experimented with creating a program that allowed parolees to work as farm laborers, but it was unsuccessful when they wouldn’t — or couldn’t — endure the grueling days.
Right now U.S. immigration policy is in shambles. Meanwhile, millions of dollars worth of crops rot every year because we don’t have the workers to pick them. This waste often translates into higher food prices. The process to legally certify migrant workers is cumbersome and can hurt farmers who are stuck waiting for papers to come through when crops are ripe and need to be picked immediately.
There is a human rights concern too: undocumented immigrants are extremely vulnerable to abuse. Some are cheated out of wages, endure terrible working conditions, or are sexually assaulted. Most keep quiet for fear of deportation.
We need to face the facts: our agricultural industry is built on illegal labor, and it needs to be reformed. We could start by creating a separate and simple visa that allows migrant workers to easily enter and exit the country, though we must maintain screening procedures. This would protect farmers from political whims that drive workers away, and protect migrants from abuse by allowing them to do their vital work legally.
By taking away the fear of deportation, more workers would again be incentivized to work in the U.S. Migrants would pay income tax and be protected under OSHA. It’s time we acknowledge the workers that keep our agriculture industry afloat and give them the legal status they deserve.