How Immigration Limbo Strains America’s Agricultural Industry


farmworkers Onerous state immigration laws, aggressive enforcement, and an aging immigrant workforce have strained the agricultural industry, threatening to put some farms out of business and leaving many farmers in desperate need of a new flow of labor.

Jason Berry and his wife own a small organic vegetable farm in Vidalia, Georgia. Recently, his farm, which relies heavily upon labor from undocumented immigrants, has suffered as a result of the strict immigration enforcement measures signed into law in Georgia in 2011. The law left him in a desperate search for a new source of labor. When he tried to employ native workers, 90 percent quit within the first three days. Berry was almost forced out of business.

Berry’s farm relies upon what he stresses is a skilled workforce that can’t easily be replaced, and maintaining this skilled workforce not only benefits farmers like him, who can count on their ability to keep production levels high, but also consumers who as a result see lower prices for fruits and vegetables.

Stories like these are common, as farms across the country rely heavily on labor from undocumented workers. One estimate suggested that half of farm workers lack legal status.

Farms that have chosen to follow employment eligibility verification laws have suffered as well. Jorge Suarez, director of strategic planning and human resources at Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms, says the company has faced labor shortages “in the range of 20 to 50 percent in the last couple of years” and is hoping that in the future it will be able to hire the workers who currently lack legal status and that there will be a new stream of labor from other countries. The sentiment is shared by local officials and farmers across California, who stress that California’s $43 billion agricultural industry is suffering due to stringent immigration controls.

In the absence of immigration reform, the situation will only get worse. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the agricultural industry’s labor supply is increasingly strained by an aging workforce. It has been almost 30 years since the passage of the 1986 immigration reform law, which allowed huge numbers of farm workers to acquire legal status, and now many of them have returned to their native countries, died, or left the agricultural industry. With an aging workforce and net immigration at zero, many farmers are hoping for a reform bill that can ensure an adequate supply of labor in the future.

The Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill may be the solution they envision. It would provide a path to citizenship for those who meet certain requirements, including passing national security and criminal background checks, and proving that applicable taxes have been paid. In the end, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, it would allow 1.5 million agricultural workers and their dependents to acquire legal status. It also would establish new farm worker visa programs with high annual caps.

Cameron Davis is an intern for Think Progress.