( File photo )

U.S. growers are losing experienced workers as they retire from the workforce, and immigration and border control policies are leading to chronic labor shortages, Western Growers CEO and President Tom Nassif told members of Congress.

Nassif appeared before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship April 3, warning of policies that could speed up the shift of production of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. to other countries.

“The simple fact is this: Fruits and vegetables that are eaten in the United States will be harvested by foreign hands,” Nassif said, according to a Western Growers news release. “The simple question for you, as members of Congress, is do you want those foreign hands harvesting your fruits and vegetables to be on farms here in the United States or do you want to see production continue to shift to farms in foreign countries?”

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association also appeared before the subcommittee.

"For too long, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry has struggled to ensure that we have an adequate, legal workforce to harvest and produce the fruits and vegetables that consumers want and need," Stenzel said. "This hearing is an important first step in the journey to pass legislation that will ensure we have the workforce needed to harvest America’s abundant fruit and vegetables.”

Recent immigration enforcement and tighter border security policies are exacerbating chronic labor shortages for growers, Nassif said. He discussed excessive red tape in the H-2A agricultural guest worker program and outlined a proposal for guest worker immigration reform.

Reform should provide a pathway to legalization for farm workers already working in the U.S. (and their families), and also create a “flexible, efficient and market-based agricultural worker visa program to ensure a sufficient future flow of labor,” according to the release.

Nassif said the issue is non-partisan, because the issue centers on long-term U.S. food security.

Western Growers and United Fresh credited subcommittee chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and subcommittee ranking member Ken Buck, R-Calif., for the opportunity to address the issue.

Earlier this year, the United Fresh board approved a policy on addressing key immigration reform issues, according to a United Fresh news release.

That policy supports:

  • Year-round visas for workers instead of temporary or seasonal;
  • A fair and predictable wage rate;
  • Including workers in minimal processing jobs such as cutting fresh fruits and vegetables;
  • Flexibility for workers/employers in portability with up to three-year visas; and
  • No arbitrary cap on the number of visas.

Stenzel's presentation on the labor crisis is available online.

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