Farm immigration reform aims to aid struggling Midwest dairies

Christopher Walljasper
Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
A Crew of migrant farm workers picks cantaloupe on Thursday, July 4, 2019 north of Kennett, Missouri. The crew arrived in Missouri’s Bootheel from Georgia about nine days previously, but had not worked the last six days because the crop was not ripe yet.

New legislation could make it easier for farmers to hire immigrant labor — a growing need for the dairy and poultry industries as well as other agriculture sectors.

The U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act October 30, in an attempt to address the agriculture industry's complicated relationship with a workforce increasingly made up of immigrants, both documented and undocumented. 

According to U.S. Department of Labor data obtained by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of farm workers using the H-2A visa program has increased by 170% in the last 10 years - from 102,600 in 2008 to nearly 277,000 in 2019. 

The proposed bill has garnered wide support among agriculture and labor groups, and includes a path to permanent residency for farm workers who have worked in agriculture for at least a decade. The bill also streamlines the H-2A visa program, offering farm managers less paperwork and more stabilized wage requirements. 

The bill is slated for review by the House Rules Committee Tuesday, December 10, followed by a full vote by the House of Representatives Wednesday December 11. It passed through the House Judiciary Committee on November 20, but not without opposition.

“We need to look no further than the first few pages to figure out what the real point to this bill is: a path to citizenship for an unknown number of illegal immigrants who do some work in agriculture, along with their families,” said ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) in a November 20 House Judiciary Committee meeting.

More than a quarter of a million farm workers across the country in 2019 were immigrants, in the country under the Department of Labor’s H-2A temporary farmworker visa program, according to Department of Labor data.

Most were seasonal or temporary labor, working in apple orchards or fields of tobacco or blueberry bushes. 

Workers, most of them from Mexio, load Christmas trees. New legislation could make it easier for farmers to hire immigrant labor

But in 2018, more than 3,000 visas were requested for work in farm jobs that aren’t seasonal, such as dairy farms and poultry production. Those industries say they are in desperate need of workers for jobs they can’t fill domestically.

“Labor continues to be one of the biggest items holding dairy farmers back,” said Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association in a statement. Sjostrom’s family operates a 200 cow dairy. “In a time of short crop windows and high stress, labor availability can truly be the difference between a farm making it to next year or not.”

Both the House and the Senate have attempted immigration labor reform legislation a half-dozen times in the last five years, but all have failed along party line votes. 

Farm labor has been addressed in many of the bills, but one big difference is that this bill focuses solely on the agriculture sector - an area of immigration that is less contentious. That’s brought on more than 40 co-sponsors, 20 of which are Republicans, including a dozen from the Midwest.

"Right now, our broken immigration system isn't working for anyone — particularly our farmers who depend on temporary agricultural workers," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI). “We can and must find areas of common ground when it comes to immigration reform — and when we do, our local businesses, our communities and our economy are stronger as a result.” 

One benefit to Midwestern farmers is a provision that allows for 20,000 additional agriculture workers in the dairy industry, which needs year round employees.

Nearly 250 agriculture groups and labor organizations support the bill, according to Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), whose team drafted the bill. But one name absent from the list of endorsements is the American Farm Bureau Federation. 

While Farm Bureau was at the table during the bill’s creation, Will Rodger, Policy Communications Director for AFBF said the current draft still falls short of the labor needs farmers facing farmers.

“We’re really still working to improve it. This bill doesn’t do enough to help our growers compete with foreign imports,” he said.

The number of farm workers using the H-2A visa program has increased by 170% in the last 10 years - from 102,600 in 2008 to nearly 277,000 in 2019.

The bill allows for 40,000 additional green cards per year for agriculture workers, half of which would be dedicated to dairy jobs.

“If passed, this bill finally provides dairy farmers access to the same pool of labor many in agriculture have utilized for decades. We look forward to a real dairy immigration program that considers the needs of both employee and employer for a successful relationship,” said Sjostrom.

Agriculture’s immigration challenges

Three quarters of agriculture workers employed in 2016 were born in another country, according to the 2015-2016 National Agriculture Workers Survey. 

But less than half were authorized to work in the U.S., even though most had been working in the country for 10 to 15 years. 

The proposed bill would offer those workers the option of permanent residency, after paying a $1,000 fine and working an additional four years in agriculture.

So far in 2019, more than 276,000 workers have been certified through the H-2A program. The majority of those workers were in Southeast or Northwest United States, with Florida, Washington state, North Carolina and Georgia topping the states with H-2A visa requests.

Most H-2A visas in 2019 were classified as simply “General Farm Workers,” followed by workers specifically for tobacco, apples and blueberries operations. More than 200 crops or industries were represented in H-2A visa applications in 2019. 

FILE- In this file photo Miguel Hernandez cleans a barn on his last day of work on a dairy farm on May 31, 2017. He was leaving for Mexico with four other dairy workers the following day. He said he did not want to work the day before he left, but the farm owners needed the help. At the time, they did not have anyone lined up to replace him as assistant herdsman on the farm.

Because H-2A visas are specifically for temporary or seasonal agriculture workers, there are thousands of workers in agriculture who are ineligible for these work authorizations, because they are needed year-round. For a full-time workforce, agricultural employers turn to the permanent visa program.

Year round ag workers

While the Farm Workforce Modernization Act makes strides for seasonal laborers, it fails to address agriculture labor needs beyond seasonal crops and raising livestock.

Nearly 63% of the permanent visas requested by agricultural employers in 2019 were in the poultry industry. Dairy was just 9%, according to analysis by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

“As someone who represents a district where the poultry industry employs over 16,000 people, and is vital to our economy, the fact that meat and poultry processors are left out represents an enormous problem,” said Collins.

Georgia topped the states requesting permanent visas related to agriculture in 2018, with close to 1,000. Nearly all of them were for poultry processing or other meat production.

Nearly all the jobs requested in the poultry industry are as line workers, slaughtering and processing chickens with an average pay of $8.43 per hour. 

On August 7, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted enforcement actions against seven poultry processing plants in Mississippi, including facilities owned by Koch Foods and Peco Foods. Koch facilities have applied for nearly 2,000 permanent visas since 2008.

Only a third of permanent visas requested in the agriculture industry are certified, while the rest are denied outright, due to improper paperwork filing, or withdrawn from consideration. In the dairy industry, only 27% are certified.

Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), who represents a large dairy district in California, said the Farm Workforce Modernization Act focuses on farmers who raised crops and animals, because they wanted to put forth a bill that could garner support from all sides of the political conversation.

“We’ve tried to go big a number of times, unsuccessfully. This is a much more narrow focused approach. Let’s try to get something done, and build on that,” said Costa.

He said if this bill passes, it could lead to further conversations about other segments of the industry that rely on immigration for a steady workforce. Costa said the Senate is also working on an immigration bill.

“We’re talking about how we can build the same sort of bipartisan support in the Senate as we have in the house," said Costa.