As we get ready to sit down to our annual Thanksgiving celebration, we need to take time to thank our nation’s farmers and farm workers who work their fields each day so that we can enjoy a bountiful table.
In the season of shopping and cooking, it is easy to forget those who plant and pick our food but we need to remember. In recent articles we see that farmers are facing high debt, bankruptcies and a surge in suicides. Many farms are at a breaking point. Experts cite multiple reasons for these unprecedented levels of pressure, which include higher costs, lower commodity prices, tariffs, climate change, and as I have seen from a decade of advocacy work, our failed immigration system.
This does not have to be our nation’s agricultural story. Congress could lessen the burden by modernizing our immigration system, legalizing undocumented workers and reducing bureaucratic red tape in the existing H-2A system. Congressional leaders know our immigration laws threaten the nation’s food supply, yet fail to act on easy fixes. For years, immigration policy experts like myself have traveled the state of Colorado and the country to help them learn about the pressing needs of the agricultural community. We need to stop putting unnecessary burdens on our farmers and fix our immigration system.
Nearly half of all farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented and can never legalize under current immigration law. The other half are evenly split between lawful workers (US citizens and long-term lawful residents) and H-2A temporary workers.
Currently, farmers only have the H-2A option or what we call the “seasonal agricultural worker visa.” For farmers who use the H-2A visa, the process is so convoluted that most cannot navigate it. Additionally, the H-2A excludes all year-round agricultural needs like milking cows, who need to be milked daily and not “seasonally.”
This month, I once again traveled around Colorado speaking with groups about immigration to get a deeper sense of the Colorado immigrant story. Legendary farmer John Harold, owner of the Tuxedo Corn Company who trademarked Olathe Sweet Corn in 1987, gathered other Western Slope farm owners to discuss their critical need for farm workers and financial struggles navigating the current H-2A system.
Harold and the others in the room are committed to hiring workers lawfully regardless of others who do not. Those I met with know that following our country’s failed immigration system comes at a steep price. In Harold’s words, “First, we have to pay $13.13 an hour, $2 more than other parts of the country, so we’re already at a competitive disadvantage. We must pay transportation and housing, which was about $45,000 this year. Then add $200 per worker in visa fees, plus many additional costs all along the way.”
Harold and the farmers I met spoke at length about their repeated attempts to hire U.S. citizens, to no avail, sharing how their immigrant workforce shows up every day, on time. They work incredibly hard and demonstrate honesty and dedication. They also shared how they have met with Congress numerous times with no results. Harold specifically shared, “I’ve met with Congress many times. I’ve told them that each day we face closing our operations. They listen, they leave, nothing changes.”
Foreign hands are going to pick our food either inside or outside our borders. When Congress, the only legislative body that can fix our immigration system, refuses to fight for common sense immigration reform to help farmers and their much needed workforce, they fail our oldest and essential agricultural industry.
We cannot allow another Thanksgiving season to pass without understanding the need to both be grateful for what we have and support Congress to come together to work toward easing the strain on our farming community so they can supply our agricultural demands. Congress needs to act now to protect our agricultural future.
Michelle Ferrigno Warren is a nationally recognized advocate and immigration policy expert. She is running for United States Senate in Colorado.