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Crops rot for want of immigration reform

Some Michigan farm owners are leaving their crops to rot because they can’t find enough workers to harvest them. That’s a shameful problem linked to bad immigration policy, and could be easily fixed if Congress would stop fighting about immigration and start adopting sensible regulations. 

The simple fix is for Congress to expand the H-2A visa program, which allows workers to enter the United States for a specific time frame to perform a specific task. It’s the perfect tool for the agriculture industry to get a surge of workers into the fields at harvest time. When the crops are picked, the workers can return home, which is what most want to do anyway.

But the stalemate over immigration rules — plus the obstructionism of labor unions that fear H-2A workers will take jobs from American workers — keeps that visa program firmly capped.

That not only hurts farmers, who can’t harvest their crops, but it also encourages farm workers to skirt the rules and enter the country illegally.

In 2013, the last year data is available, Michigan had nearly 50,000 migrant and seasonal employees working in fields, nurseries, food processing and reforestation. It needs thousands more at peak harvest time. No estimates are available of how much of the harvest will go unpicked this year.

Katie Rasch, associate labor program coordinator for Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, says there are five agencies with separate deadlines and paperwork that all have a piece of the H-2A program. She says some agencies work through email, some work through online filing and some use regular mail only.

“If there’s an issue with one, you get backed up with all the rest,” Rasch says. “The oversight is not clear.”

Obviously, the process needs streamlining and better communication between the government agencies.

Before employers can turn to the H-2A program, they must exhaust efforts to find workers living in other states. That, too, can be complex and expensive, not to mention unreliable. And other states also have shortages of farm labor.

“(The shortage) is not unique to Michigan; every state is looking for workers,” says Ken Silfven, communications director of the Michigan Talent Investment Agency. “The biggest thing is continuing to make people aware of the opportunities in Michigan through partnerships with workers and companies.”

The agency is distributing more than 5,000 brochures printed in Spanish and English to promote jobs for picking crops.

That’s a good step, as is marketing efforts in states such as Florida with large populations of farm workers.

But they’re no substitute for sound immigration policy. Washington must simplify and expand the H-2A program to make it easier for farmers to get the laborers they need.

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