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U.S. Farmer Moves His Operations South — Where the Workers Are

Each winter, an estimated two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the United States are grown in California’s Imperial Valley. One of the largest operations there is the Scaroni Family of Companies, a multimillion-dollar farming enterprise that employs more than 5,000 people and, according to owner Steve Scaroni, to some degree handles, between its harvesting and logistics operations, approximately 20 percent of every salad eaten in the United States.

None of this salad would get to our plates, however, without the foreign guest workers who make up 80 percent of Scaroni’s workforce. “Immigrants are mission critical to what we do,” he says. “My company, which serves a lot of major brands in the stores, the agriculture industry, none of us could function or do what we do without immigrants. There just are not local domestic workers who are willing to fill our production needs anywhere. It’s a national issue.”

Scaroni is right. Agricultural fieldwork, for example, is heavily dependent on migrant labor, in large part because American workers show scant interest in taking the jobs. In recent years, the number of new immigrants coming to the United States to work in agriculture has fallen by 75 percent.

We literally have 10 to 15 acres of strawberries rotting on the vine.

Scaroni relies on the H-2A visa for temporary agricultural workers, because he has no other options. “The H-2A program is an extremely difficult, bureaucratic, burdensome program,” he says. “Every single year we have something go wrong with it,” he says. “There are always one or two instances where we are not able to get workers to the crops on time, and we end up losing some produce.”

In the late summer of 2017, he was facing delays in Santa Maria. There were 50 workers who Scaroni needed out in the field picking strawberries; instead, they were sitting in hotel rooms in California, waiting on their paperwork to come through.

The affected workers were people who had been vetted and were already working for Scaroni in the United States but whose visas were about to run out. He filed the paperwork to extend their stay with plenty of time to meet his production needs. But a minor paperwork error derailed him. “We made one mistake on one line item,” says Scaroni. “And when the agency caught the mistake, what did they do? They didn’t call or email us. They put the application in an envelope and sent it back though regular mail, so that five or six days later we get the notice. It’s crazy that in 2017 there are still parts of this process that cannot be done online.”

The losses for Scaroni are substantial. “We literally have 10 to 15 acres of strawberries rotting on the vine,” he says. “And strawberries cost $30,000 an acre to grow, so that’s at least a $300,000 investment just gone.” But there are even greater loses for the United States. In 2005, he actually moved some of his business south of the border, in part due to a lack of workers. Now he grows different varieties of lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery in Mexico and exports the produce to the United States. He did not want to move part of his operations outside of the country, but he saw no other way to grow his business. “Mexico is not without its labor shortages or issues beyond labor,” says Scaroni. “But the U.S. visa process, and especially California regulations and anti-employer state-government bias, makes it so that there either aren’t enough workers for the USA, or we’re not able to get workers to the crops on time in some cases via H-2A.”

Scaroni wants immigration reform that would streamline the current visa application system. A way to do that, he suggests, would be to single out one department to oversee all agriculture visas instead of having the applications weave through three or more agencies each time. “The biggest thing is to move the program out of the Department of Labor and into the Department of Agriculture,” says Scaroni. “The DOL’s goal is to make the H-2A program as difficult as possible to hire migrant workers. They want you to hire Americans even though American don’t want to do this work. No one is raising their kids to be farm workers,” he says. “Even farm workers are not raising their kids to be farm workers.”

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