Americans across the political spectrum recognize that our federal immigration system is broken. It does not work for those seeking to become part of our nation and pursue the American dream. It does not work for employers seeking to fill gaps in the current workforce. And it does not work for concerned citizens who are offended by the arbitrary or inconsistent enforcement of existing laws resulting from the impracticability of these laws.
Producers of labor-intensive crops, including tree fruit, are particularly conscious of and subject to the failures of current law and policy on immigration. Temporary and seasonal agricultural jobs have long been filled by migrants, whether domestic or recent immigrants, seeking to take their first steps up the economic ladder. While exact data is hard to come by because all employees present documents that appear valid when they are hired, anonymous survey data suggests that approximately half of the seasonal agricultural labor force is not properly documented.
It is with this reality in mind that our industry and others in labor-dependent agriculture have sought reforms to our immigration system for over 25 years. Specifically, we have urged changes that would address the current workforce and allow those who are not legally present a chance to come forward and become properly authorized through a screening process. We are also seeking a guest worker program that will work for both small and large growers, and which allows willing foreign workers to take jobs that are not and cannot be filled by the domestic labor force. And finally, any successful reform package will include increased enforcement measures to verify the eligibility of all workers in the reformed system.
Three legs needed
All three legs of this stool must be in place for immigration policy to function properly. To pursue only increased enforcement, without providing a viable legal pathway for immigrants, temporary workers, and their employers is to court economic disaster. Even with undocumented workers present in the workforce, unemployment rates have already fallen below levels preceding the 2008 financial crisis.
In tree fruit-growing counties of Central Washington, unemployment rates are at record lows not seen since electronic records began being kept 28 years ago. It is not reasonable to suppose that citizens and other workers who have moved on to other work will choose to take more physically demanding temporary work when so many other options are available. Ongoing technological innovation and automation is helping to slow the demand for farm labor, but the complete elimination of humans from any economic sector remains the stuff of science fiction.
While some might blithely say that this work is undesirable and that we can do without fresh fruit or vegetable production in the United States, this would be short-sighted. Shifting production of perishable produce offshore to countries where farm labor is readily available would reduce all Americans’ food security, as well as sacrificing the jobs of those in skilled fields ranging from sales to truck driving that exist only because of domestic produce production made possible through farm labor. The Washington apple crop alone supports 20,000 indirect jobs in support industries, with an annual payroll of over $1 billion per year.
It is with these concerns in mind that the Washington State Tree Fruit Association supported SB 5689 in the Washington State Legislature. The bill creates an advisory group on employment in agriculture and other industries with a large immigrant workforce. It also directs the Attorney General to provide model policies to guide cooperation with federal immigration officials such that Washington meets, but does not exceed, its enforcement obligations.
Some have mistakenly described this as a “sanctuary” policy. However, most Americans understand sanctuary policies to be a willful refusal to follow or enforce the law, rather than a “comply but do not volunteer for more” approach as proposed in SB 5689. This should hardly be controversial and is far from unusual. Every farm or business would cooperate with a regulatory enforcement investigation on labor, environmental, or other issues, but neither would they volunteer extraneous information. And every American knows to pay their taxes as required, but few would volunteer to send additional contributions to the IRS.
Washington’s tree fruit producers will continue to press Congress and the Administration to enact meaningful reforms to our broken immigration system. They will also continue to support compliance with immigration law, as growers have always complied with laws and regulations that aren’t working even while seeking to change them. But until that reform takes place, the “comply but don’t volunteer” approach may be the best chance of averting disaster for labor-intensive agriculture and of the rural Washington economy.
Jon DeVaney is the president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, based in Yakima, Wash.