ACCORDING to conventional wisdom, elected officials avoid controversial issues in election years. So far this year, our political leaders in Washington, D.C., have lived up to those expectations. Posturing between U.S. House Republicans, the Democratic Senate and the White House has again revealed how difficult and frustrating the perennial issue of immigration reform can be.
Recent comments by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and chair of the House Republican Conference, indicate that there may be a window of opportunity for getting immigration-reform legislation to the House floor by August.
Progress on immigration reform this year is critically important to agriculture, and Congress needs to focus on a path forward. Encouraging the House to pass the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill is a nonstarter. The only way to move the issue forward in the House is for Republicans to pass their own plan.
In January, House Speaker John Boehner released immigration standards that included many key reforms that the Washington Farm Bureau believes must be advanced. Boehner deserves credit for taking this critical step toward consensus, and the state’s congressional delegation should join him in this effort to move this issue forward.
Immigration reform is key to continued economic growth nationwide and locally. Washington’s food and agriculture industry generates $49 billion in revenue annually. To produce and harvest the crops that drive that economic output, farmers must have an adequate, reliable workforce.
Unfortunately, American workers are typically not interested in this line of work. Farm jobs are seasonal and require physical labor in a variety of weather conditions. According to a study by the Partnership for a New American Economy, American workers do not apply for farm jobs even during periods of high unemployment.
This often leaves farmers no choice but to rely on foreign workers. Sadly, our immigration system has made it nearly impossible for farmers to use the existing H-2A visa program to hire seasonal workers. The system is bureaucratic, complex, costly and hugely inefficient.
An effective visa program would remedy labor shortages without displacing American workers, and it would actually increase the number of jobs available to Americans as agricultural output ripples through our economy. According to the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, for every farm job filled, three additional jobs are created downstream in fields such as manufacturing, transportation, retail and sales.