Immigration Reform 2013: How Will It Affect Southern Farmers?

With all the talk surrounding the Gang of Eight's new immigration law, the effects on the United States have been hashed and re-hashed. The impact that the new immigration bill could have on the south in particular is substantial; as an overwhelmingly agricultural economy reliant on cheap labor, the changes to the visa and worker programs will have a large impact on the farming industry in the South. The United Farm Workers and other farm representatives testified recently in front of Senate Judiciary Committee to push parts of the farmworker section. With over 300 amendments still being discussed and with the legislation being fairly new and yet to be implemented, there are many details still being worked out. No one knows for sure the future impact the bill would have. However, it is safe to say that some of the new provisions in the bill regarding low-skilled workers could definitely impact the South and other agricultural communities in a big way.

The parts of the new bill that most affect the South are the portions devoted specifically to low-skilled workers. Many of the agriculture workers in the U.S. lack the immigration status to work here legally. The new immigration bill would change that. Immigrants here illegally could gain a provisional legal status six months after enactment as long as they meet certain criteria. A new agriculture visa program would legally bring more farm workers to the U.S.; farm workers already here illegally would be able to apply for a so-called "blue card" that would allow them permanent residency after five years, less than half the normal waiting time. Estimates place the number of agricultural workers here illegally as high as 70%, and this "fast track" to permanent residency could legalize more than one million of them.

Supporters of this blue card say that the change is needed because these are jobs that oftentimes Americans won't do, and this is true. I've seen it growing up where I live — it's hard to find legal workers to do the tough, dirty agricultural work. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) has long advocated for a "guest worker program for agriculture that is workable and will provide central Washington farmers with the legal work force they need to fill jobs that Americans are not willing to do." Moreover, farmers have complained for years that harsh restrictions on hiring and regulations in using the H-2A visa system to bring in laborers legally has forced them to hire undocumented workers. The new provisions are indeed more restrictive, such as mandatory use of employee verification, and overhauling the system will potentially legalize the currently undocumented agricultural workers.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) fears that the five-year legalization of agricultural workers will "be too easy," and will create another gap to fill with more undocumented workers when the newly documented ones move on to more lucrative jobs. Once this happens, the harsher hiring provisions, such as mandated use of E-Verify, could make it more difficult to find workers to fill these gaps, leading to a labor shortage. This work force loss could have crops laying unpicked in fields, potentially costing millions of dollars, as has already happened in the South during other times of migrant worker loss.

Iowa, Alabama, and Texas are already experiencing a shortage of farmworkers. The new immigration bill putting more than a million of undocumented farmworkers on a fast track to permanent residency will worsen this shortage. With this shortage, farmers will have to increase wages to attract more workers. A recent study has shown that farmers will drop production before they will do this, leading to a possible crop shortage. A reduction in the number of unauthorized workers would lead to a long-run reduction in outputs and exports of the agricultural economy. Since unauthorized workers would be in shorter supply after the immigration bill passed, their wages would also likely increase. While this is good news for workers, in the long term it would lead to an increase in product prices and possible goods reduction to compensate.

The trajectory of comprehensive immigration reform is unclear, as the final touches are being made, but with the provisions that have been drafted already it seems that it will have a significant impact on the Southern agricultural community. It will impact the wages, prices, and costs of the agricultural community, as well as create a legal competitive market in this industry. However, tough measures such as E-verify must be strengthened and effective in order to fix our broken immigration system. Any immigration changes are going to impact the agricultural economy in a big way, and especially her people.

"… we are loudly saying that without people to work on America's farms and ranches, pick the crops, or milk the cows, all other issues in agriculture become irrelevant," says Chuck Conner, acting Agricultural secretary. Because we know nothing for certain so far with this bill, there are many paths the agricultural industry could take, and this is just speculation on a few of them.