By Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (WA-1)
As USDA has widely reported and producers are all too aware, commodity prices have been significantly declining recently. Nationally, net farm income has dropped 56 percent in the last three years.
While not all agricultural products have experienced such a dramatic drop in price, there are other factors that are creating financial hardships across the country. In Washington, where specialty crop prices are relatively stable and in certain circumstances, even on the rise, access to labor is becoming a perpetual challenge. As a nation, we are reliant on temporary and seasonal workers, often through the H-2A visa program, to meet the labor needs of agriculture. H-2A helps aid the labor-intensive periods of planting, harvesting and migrating livestock.
However, our country’s broken immigration system has caused significant delays in processing and approving visas. In instances where H-2A labor has been unavailable, an unstable and unreliable labor supply has caused fruits and vegetables to rot on the trees and in the field. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost by agricultural producers due to these labor shortages. Regrettably, in recent years, the H-2A program has not been administered in a way that recognizes the seasonal and perishable nature of the agriculture industry.
The administration has worked to improve some of these problems, but more work needs to be done. I was proud to join a bipartisan group of House members to push for meaningful improvements to the H-2A program as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Without reforms, Congress shares in the blame for the labor shortages and delays that have had harmful economic effects on producers.
Meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform is an economic imperative for producers that operate in labor-intensive operations, from fruit and vegetables to dairy and livestock. Since coming to Congress, I have advocated for significant changes to our broken immigration system.
That’s why, in the 113th Congress, I was a lead sponsor of a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15). This legislation would secure our borders, protect our workers, unite families and offer hardworking immigrants an earned pathway to citizenship. Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to vote on this important legislation, but I remain fully committed to continuing to work toward a balanced, responsible approach to fixing our immigration system.
We must ensure American employers and entrepreneurs can attract and hire the workforce demanded by a highly competitive 21st century economy. Our local employers, whether in technology, manufacturing or agriculture, need an immigration system that works for them and helps sustain and create jobs. That’s why in the 114th Congress, I’ve opposed partisan, enforcement-only immigration bills in the House Judiciary Committee that would hurt Washington’s agriculture and technology sectors, and introduced amendments that would prevent significant harm to our local economy.
Unfortunately, sensible discussions around immigration have eroded almost entirely. The shortsightedness of some has come at the expense of individuals, families and businesses across the country. In agriculture alone, there are dozens of states suffering from labor shortages and delayed arrival of H-2A workers. In an already stressed farm economy, these self-inflicted problems are inexcusable and irresponsible. We know all too well that while family farmers provide the base of the operation’s labor, many times it is simply not enough and additional workers are required. There are few individuals who are willing to do these jobs today and erecting higher barriers to entry is simply counterproductive.
It is past time to have a meaningful and constructive conversation about labor and comprehensive immigration reform. As members of Congress head into the August district work period, I would urge Farmers Union members, when meeting with their representatives, to share their stories. Humanizing the debate and demonstrating the economic stakes can only help to move this issue forward. I believe we have a historic opportunity to fix our nation’s broken immigration system in a bipartisan way so that it works for families, farmers and our economy.