WASHINGTON, D.C. — The stakes are rising and tempers are flaring in the immigration debate.
As much of the agricultural community seeks to avoid a mandatory E-Verify law without a suitable guest worker program for agriculture, economists with the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., have estimated the U.S. could lose $5 billion to $9 billion in agricultural production and $3 billion in net farm income if growers are left without a sufficient legal workforce, said Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the Farm Bureau.
Schlegel spoke at the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference Oct. 4 session on the industry’s response to the threat of mandatory E-Verify legislation in the House of Representatives.
The House Judiciary Committee has approved mandatory E-Verify legislation, but the outlook for its consideration by the full House — and the potential attachment of a farm guest worker amendment — are uncertain.
Schlegel said some members of Congress are indifferent to the losses faced by growers.
“We are going to have to make a case that for agriculture to survive, at the end of the day we have to have a program that works for everybody.”
Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations and research for the American Nursery and Landscape Association and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said that a reformed H-2A program alone cannot bridge the gap between the workforce that is not legally authorized and what is needed.
Regelbrugge said the goal is to get the best ag framework in the House to attach to the E-Verify bill, though the result may not provide any solution for existing illegal workers.
Still, he said congressional inaction on mandatory E-verify legislation isn’t a solution either.
“If nothing happens, we are going to see continued I-9 audits, we will see continued no-match letters and the liability associated with them, and likely we will see another round of states joining the Arizona club (regarding immigration enforcement) and with the devastation that happens when that unfolds,” he said.
What’s more, he said any improvement in the economy will result in a worsening labor shortages for agriculture.
“The future will be offshore (production), it will be loss of on-farm and off-farm jobs, it will be lost economic value that is sustaining communities,” he said.
During the question-and-answer session, Steve Scaroni, with the Heber, Calif.-based Scaroni Family of Cos., said Farm Bureau’s lack of support for AgJobs hindered previous efforts to secure a legal workforce. Some of Farm Bureau’s southeast U.S. interests have worked against the interests of California agriculture in the past, he said.
Schlegel took strong exception to the characterization.
“I will publicly reject anyone who says Farm Bureau is the (one) responsible for this,” he said. “There is nothing today that will give agriculture a functional, workable ag program,” he said. “Don’t blame me or my organization.”