Farm groups push Senate for visa changes amid immigration concerns

Donnelle Eller
DesMoines Register
Time is ticking for the U.S. Senate to revamp a farm worker visa program this session. But immigration concerns nationally may prevent passage.

Tom Hughes, the fourth-generation owner of Hughes Nursery and Landscaping, says many of the companies that supply his Cedar Rapids business with starter trees rely on the seasonal program H-2A visa for workers.

"Without that program, we wouldn't have any stock to grow," said Hughes, who owns the business with his brother, John.

"It gets harder and harder every year to get the people we want," said Hughes, who worries about the ability to pass on the company to his family's next generation, given the state's historic low unemployment rate and slow population growth.

A diverse coalition of Midwest farmers, businesses and worker advocates is pushing the U.S. Senate to pass a bipartisan measure in the last days of its current session that would give undocumented workers a path to citizenship while providing agricultural operations with year-round labor. But heightened concerns nationally about immigration, focused on reports of expanded illegal border crossings, may prove too big a hurdle for the bill to win passage.

The legislation, called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would modify the nation's agricultural visa program, which allows immigrant workers to come into the country for less than a year at a time to help farmers grow fruits and vegetables, milk cows, feed cattle and build farm structures, among other work.

Unlike states with mainly short-term harvesting needs, Iowa needs year-round help as the nation's leading pork and egg producer, agriculture leaders say.

Farm and business leaders say the legislation ― passed by the U.S. House last year ― is critical to the rural Midwest, home to an older, shrinking labor pool as young people leave for urban areas to pursue college and job opportunities. Unlike states with mainly short-term harvesting needs, Iowa needs year-round help as the nation's leading pork and egg producer, while states like Wisconsin, home to large CAFO dairy operations, are in the same boat, agriculture leaders say.

"Nearly everyone I talk with is significantly short of the number of employees they'd like to have," said Bill Northey, CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, a group representing seed, fertilizer and other agriculture companies. "Often that number is 10-15% short of who they'd really like to have."

Many dairy farmers struggle to recruit and retain native workers despite higher wages and benefits, making immigrant labor an increasingly important part of the dairy workforce. 

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation says dairy farmers continue to face the same shortage of domestic workers as all of agriculture, but they do not have access to the H-2A farmworker program, which only provides for seasonal labor rather than the year-round workers dairy needs.

"Dairy farms will not be able to survive, let alone thrive, without a steady, reliable workforce," he said.

Northey, a former Iowa agriculture secretary and undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Trump administration, says most farms have significantly increased their salaries.

"That's helped," he said, "but it doesn't create people out of thin air. They need a bigger pool of folks to reach out to."

Wisconsin farms and agriculture businesses' reliance on seasonal workers has grown, climbing to 7,020 in 2021 - nearly 1,000 workers above 2020 totals - according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce DevelopmentBureau of Job Service Migrant and H-2A Worker Population report.

Grassley sees pathway to citizenship as a sticking point

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, have worked over the past year to hammer out a version of the bill they hope can get support from the 60 senators needed for passage. But Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said that while the program is critical to Midwest farmers, he doubts the bill will get the necessary Republican support if it includes a pathway for workers to gain citizenship.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) meets with supporters in the dairy barn on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

"I think it would be hard to get something passed, even though there's documented need for immigration legislation dealing with agricultural workers," Grassley told reporters.

Legislative proponents have said changes are needed to boost U.S. food security, with projections showing the country could import more food next year than it exports. The legislation also includes restrictions on expected salary increases for farm laborers who gain visas through the program, which could reduce rising food costs.

With a Republican-controlled House coming in next year, "it's now or never," said Antonio De Loera-Brust, spokesman for United Farm Workers of America in California. 

"The reality is that there is somewhere between 2 (million) to 3 million farm workers employed on U.S. farms during a typical year, and as many as half are undocumented," said Jorge Loweree, managing director of programs and strategy at the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C., immigrant advocacy group.

"Much of the food that we find on our tables gets there because of the labor of many undocumented immigrants," Loweree said. "It impacts all of us."

Declining population helps drive push for immigration changes

Wisconsin's unemployment rate of 3.1% now stands at 0.6 percentage points below the national rate of 3.7%. However, two-thirds of Wisconsin's rural counties lost population between 2010 and 2018, according to a report from Forward Analytics Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) reported. And it's a trend that's likely to get worse in the next decade, presenting serious economic challenges to the state's smaller communities.

According to the latest U.S. Census, Wisconsin population increased 3.6% since 2010. Wisconsin counties where population declined lost an average of 2.2 percent of their residents in the eight-year period. Declines were most acute in Price County, which lost 5.4 percent, and Iron County, which lost 4.1 percent, WPR reported. 

Wisconsin dairy farmer and President of the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, one of the largest dairy co-ops in the country, says changes in demographics, labor patterns and the nature of the jobs have made it impossible for farmers to fill all available positions with American citizens, and that existing immigrant ag labor rules, which focus on seasonal work, are impractical.

“The struggle is very real for many of our farmers,” he said in a press release. “We need a solution that provides a path for qualified employees to come to this country and a system for keeping those already here. No business or industry can survive without a skilled and stable workforce.”

Brody Stapel

The U.S. House-passed legislation could give rural areas a boost, worker advocates say, providing 40,000 farm workers with an opportunity to gain legal immigration status each year. It's "a very long and arduous path," said Loweree, the American Immigration Center managing director.

Undocumented farm workers who have been employed in U.S. agriculture for 10 years would be required to work an additional four years to gain a green card. And those working less than 10 years would be required to work an additional eight years. They also would have to undergo a criminal background check and pay a $1,000 fine.

Employers, who must demonstrate they are unable to find U.S. workers and also must meet a wage threshold, would be required to use the E-verify system to certify immigrants' eligibility to be hired.

The House bill also would create 20,000 year-round farm worker visas annually and create a pilot project that gives 10,000 guest worker visa holders flexibility in switching employers.

Salary restrictions for farm workers under the House bill would save businesses nearly $2.8 billion through 2024, an amount that includes $37.4 million in Iowa, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington, D.C., think tank.

That would ripple through the economy, the group said, lowering costs for farmers and consumers. Food costs rose 7.7% in October compared to a year earlier.

"Farmers would likely spend the same amount on labor but could hire about 125,000 additional workers to increase production," the Cato Institute said in its analysis.

Is compromise on immigration legislation possible?

While the House bill streamlines the H-2A process for employers, it also provides added protections for farm workers: For the first time, H-2A visa workers and their employers would be covered by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, allowing workers who advocates say are vulnerable to wage theft and other labor abuses to sue employers in federal court.

Ethan Lane, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association's government affairs vice president, said his group needs year-round labor but wished that the legislation would include meatpacking and other agriculture-related jobs. "One of the biggest labor issues in the cattle industry is the lack of labor in packing," Lane said.

"If you're looking at an agriculture-focused bill, we feel it's important to make sure you're looking at the supply chain ... to relieve those pressures that cause financial hardship for producers," he said, adding that truck drivers are another group in short supply.

But the bill has provisions that could prove barriers to its passage. Ryan Yates, American Farm Bureau Federation's managing director of government relations, said the group has concerns about the cap on year-round workers and their expanded ability to sue employers.

"Dairy alone could use over 100,000 year-round workers," said Yates, who would like to see no cap on the number of year-round workers who could enter the U.S. annually.

And expanded worker protections are unneeded and "would expose farmers to frivolous litigation," he said, adding that the existing programs has "an extensive list of government regulations and oversight."

Grassley said border security is likely to be a concern for Senate members. "I think that there's resistance until the president secures the border," not just in connection with the farm worker bill, "but to almost anything dealing with immigration," he said, referring to disputed Republican contentions that President Joe Biden has allowed a flood of illegal immigration.

Hughes, the Cedar Rapids landscape business owner, and others urged congressional members to not tie farm worker visa changes to border security.

"I think we need border security. That's important," he said, but added, "that doesn't mean that we limit having immigrants come into the country in a safe and legal way."

He added that undocumented workers aren't able to gain legal residency with "a snap of the fingers." Those workers are critical to the agricultural economy, he said. Losing them "would cripple our economy. It would be catastrophic."

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this report.