As head of the Washington Grower’s League for 29 years, Mike Gempler knows how critical immigration reform is to American farmers. He says our guest worker program is complicated, expensive, and often does not bring workers into the country in time to work on highly perishable crops when they are ripe and need to be harvested. When U.S.-based workers apply for jobs, they present documents that appear to be genuine, but data from the Pew Research Center found that approximately 44 percent of these employees in Washington are undocumented.
Since non-legal employees could be rounded up and deported at any time, this puts U.S. farms at risk. “You wouldn’t have people to harvest the crops,” Gempler explains. “Tens of thousands of acres would go to waste.”
Gempler has journeyed to rural Mexico on several occasions, and was struck by the deprivation there. “People come across the border to feed their families,” he says. Not to steal American jobs. “No one raises their child to be a farm worker,” Gempler says.
People come across the border to feed their families,” he says. Not to steal American jobs. “No one raises their child to be a farm worker.
He believes there is a solution that would allow farmers to legally hire a capable workforce from abroad, while providing those workers a living wage: allow registered foreigners to come here and look for jobs. He says this would be a vast improvement on the current agricultural guest worker program, which requires employers to prove that they cannot hire U.S. workers and stipulates that those applying for visas must appear at a U.S. embassy abroad. These stipulations are cumbersome for all parties. They are also unnecessary. As Gempler points out, it is not like U.S.-born workers are being squeezed out of the farmworker labor force. “They aren’t interested in these jobs,” he says.
Gempler was intensely involved in the 2013 effort to craft a program that served the interests of both labor and employers. That proposal became part of the immigration reform legislation that passed the U.S. Senate that year but was never debated in the House.
Apart from making economic sense, Gempler feels that immigration reform is a moral imperative. Part of his work at the Washington Grower’s League has been training workers and supervisors on sexual harassment and also building decent housing for farm employees. Allowing people the chance to come out of the shadows and seek citizenship would immeasurably improve their lives, he says. “We have benefited from people working in service industries and agriculture,” he points out. “We need to give these folks a chance to become full members of U.S. society.”