In August the California Assembly’s appropriations committee will discuss a state Senate bill (AB 20) to issue work permits to undocumented immigrants working in agriculture. This approach—state-based visa reform—is gaining steam as a viable partial solution to fixing the broken U.S. immigration system. It would also improve agriculture capabilities in the Golden State.
The legal channel for low-skilled immigrants looking for work in agriculture is the H-2A visa. This visa category is uncapped, but the program is so bureaucratically complex that most employers and immigrants won’t even give the legal channel a try. Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao went as far to say, “Many who have tried report such bad experiences that they stopped using it altogether.” The failed program chokes off the flow of legal guest workers.
With a barely workable legal system, farmers look to undocumented labor. The Brookings Institution reports that less than 10 percent of the U.S. agricultural workforce is employed through H-2A. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor finds that more than half of farm workers are undocumented immigrants. These workers help bolster an agricultural industry that would otherwise suffer labor shortages thanks to inefficient public policy.
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, said that growers in Salinas Valley, California, have complained for several years about labor shortages, which result in crops not being harvested in time. Alejo argues that the bill would provide economic stability to the Golden State’s agricultural industry.
The American Farm Bureau Federation reports similar shortages nationwide. Also, in 2013 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack predicted, “In the years to come, the resulting instability in our agricultural workforce threatens productivity on farms and ranches, and impacts rural communities where agriculture is a thriving part of their economies.”
In 2013 nearly 17 million full- and part-time jobs were related to agriculture, more than nine percent of total U.S. employment.
Despite labor shortages, California agriculture still leads the nation in sales. Mitigating shortages would enable it to produce more and thus support more jobs in food processing, transportation, marketing, food service, etc. The bill would not only help stem labor shortages; it would also enable workers to arrive at the appropriate times in the season, and allow firms to plan with more certainty. In addition, the bill would increase revenues to the states.
Senate Bill AB 20 is supported by more than 15 business and agricultural organizations, including the state Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau Federation. The organizations signed a letter supporting the bill, claiming passage would send a message to the federal government to resume comprehensive immigration reform talks.
Support from such groups bodes well for the prospects of state-based reform. California is the latest of 13 states to have pursued state-based visa programs since 2008. With federal reform gridlocked until 2017 at the earliest, other agricultural states ought to follow California and propose similar programs.
Public opinion is in line with states bringing in guest workers and providing legal work status to immigrants. An Immigration Works poll from earlier this year found that nearly 80 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of legal immigration. Nearly 60 percent believe the United States needs more legal immigrants with low skills, with 70 percent supporting a visa program for them. Moreover, 86 percent believe legal immigrants make an important contribution to the U.S. economy.
When respondents were asked to name the first thing that came to mind when they thought of legal immigrant workers, six out of the eight most popular responses were positive. They thought, for example, of the American dream or that immigrants were hard workers. These are the types of workers that will be rewarded with legal status through this bill.
California is home to an estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom have been living in the country more than 10 years. Offering them legal work permits would both help the agricultural sector and bring immigrants out of the shadows.