Walk into pretty much any farming, livestock, or agribusiness operation in Kansas, and you’ll find managers who are desperate to expand their workforce — and also plenty of immigrants who’ve come to the state in search of jobs, says former Kansas Agriculture Secretary Allie Devine. With population levels plateauing, and some parts of the state now boasting unemployment rates below 3 percent, immigrant workers are an increasingly vital part of the Kansas workforce, she explains. “For us to have an economy that can grow, we need access to skilled and unskilled labor,” she says. “Many of the jobs involved in agriculture require low-skilled labor, and we simply don’t have a lot of people willing to do those jobs,” she says. “And some of them are technology-based jobs that require highly trained people, and again finding those people is difficult.”
Devine, who worked with the Kansas Livestock Association for many years, now runs a small law firm in Topeka. She says most Kansas employers make every effort to find legal workers, and follow all appropriate verification protocols, but the labor shortages create a clear economic incentive for undocumented workers to come to Kansas. “Throughout the state, immigrants are vital to Kansas,” she says. “And because labor is so sought after in Kansas, immigrant laborers are making good money.”
Part of the problem, Devine says, is that existing farm worker visas are designed to provide short-term labor to meet seasonal surges in consumer demand. That’s doesn’t address the year-round labor needs of livestock operations. “In other states, a migrant workforce is helpful, but our needs aren’t seasonal,” she explains. Another big challenge for Kansas farmers is that much of their work involves the use of technology, so workers need careful and costly training before they can begin work. “Once you train a person, you very much want to keep that person long-term,” Devine says. A short-term visa doesn’t help these employers.
The immigrant population is really vital to maintaining our population, and having enough workers to fill our jobs.
Devine, like many of her clients in the livestock and agribusiness sectors, wants to see more flexible visa programs introduced, perhaps with state-level supervision, to steer skilled and unskilled workers into the sectors where they’re most needed. “If the state could have that kind of input, we’d be interested in that,” she says. “We need more visas and more flexibility.” The bottom line, she adds, is that Kansas needs more workers, and only immigrants can meet that need. “Finding qualified workers, and people willing to do the less glamorous jobs, would be the best thing for all our businesses,” she says. “And we need them as soon as possible if we’re going to continue to grow our economy.”
Besides making it easier for workers to come to the United States legally, Devine also wants to see people already in the country treated with more compassion and pragmatism. “Kansans support border security as a concept, but they also support an opening for workers that are here to remain here,” she says. Efforts to deport large numbers of undocumented immigrants could be disastrous, Devine warns, and lead to an exodus of legally documented workers whose spouses or other family members lack legal status. “The business concern, in particular, is with programs that would alienate immigrants so much that they’d leave the state,” she says.
What’s really needed, Devine says, is immigration reform that focuses more on economics and labor needs than on efforts to seal the border and remove undocumented workers. “Once people understand how much it costs to deport a person, they’ll see that we simply can’t afford to deport 11 million people — there isn’t enough money,” she says. “And for those people who are undocumented and contributing to the economy, the simple question is why would we want them to leave, when Kansas needs workers?”