New report looks at economics of immigration reform

Aug 5, 2013

President Obama isn’t the only one turning attention to the economy. A recent White House report has framed the immigration reform issue and the Senate immigration bill from an economic view.

The bottom-line message from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who introduced the report, was that U.S. agriculture needs the Senate’s “commonsense” immigration reform.

Vilsack spoke to the country via a “national media call” about the new report—“Fixing our broken immigration system: The economic benefits to Agriculture and rural communities”—last Monday. In the half-hour interview which aired on numerous radio stations throughout the country, the Agriculture secretary spoke of the report’s findings, which focused on the economic impact of the current immigration system.

“This is a very, very important report,” Vilsack said. “I think everyone understands and appreciates that the immigration system is broken.”

Vilsack focused heavily on a particular element of the report, namely that there are and have been shortages in the supply of ag workers and that shortage has impacted U.S. ag production. He attributed this shortage of workers to the current immigration system.

“Currently, the agriculture industry is hampered by a broken immigration system that fails to support a predictable and stable workforce,” read the report’s introduction. “Moreover, there continue to be insufficient U.S.-born workers to fill labor needs: of those crop workers surveyed between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent were foreign born.”

Of the foreign-born ag labor force, the report said that—for farmworkers working on crop farms surveyed between 2005- 2009—half lacked proper employment authorization. It also reported that “by conservative estimates” 60 percent of the nation’s farmworkers are in the country illegally.

This situation makes for a very instable and unpredictable work environment for all involved.

Vilsack pointed to this detail as key to the need to improve the immigration system and to the economic success of America’s agricultural sector.

“This lack of workers and lack of stability; the bottom line is the lack of labor will result in a decrease of agricultural production.” He went on to say that if the lack of a stable work force continues, it might go so far as to threaten the U.S. food security.

The report offered several examples of the impact either the insufficient supply of workers or the instability of labor has had. One quoted study from 2008 out of Texas showed 77 percent of growers and packers of fresh produce located near the Mexican border had reduced their operations because of a lack of available workers. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they had moved a portion of their operation out of the country, and another 27 percent said they were contemplating the same thing.

“Without providing a path to earned citizenship for unauthorized farmworkers and a new temporary program that agriculture employers would use, a significant portion of this farm workforce will remain unauthorized, thereby susceptible to immigration enforcement actions that could tighten the supply of farm labor,” read the report.

Both the report and Vilsack’s introduction of it included liberal use of “commonsense immigration reform” descriptor, a favorite phrase of supporters of the Senate bill, along with other popular sound bites and outright support for the Senate immigration bill. Indeed, while the data cited within the report came from studies conducted for many years, if not decades, the report seems to be largely a datawrapped support effort for the Senate bill, which it always described as “bipartisan.” Vilsack was also frequent in his mention of the Senate immigration bill and described it as having “strong bipartisan support.”

The Senate immigration bill

The Senate bill—S. 744, “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act”—passed the Senate on July 27 with a 68 percent vote. While the bill did get yes votes from all represented parties, all Senate Democrats voted in favor of it and all of those voting against it were Republican.

In its current form, the Senate immigration bill is 1,198 pages long and was only introduced three and a half months ago. Among other things, the bill outlines a strategy for securing the southern border, establishing an employment verification system, an agricultural worker program, a road map for dealing with immigration and asylum in the future, and a timeline by which various elements need to be in place.

“There is a great deal of desire to get this done,” said Vilsack of immigration reform. “And there’s no excuse not to get it done.”

Among the topics discussed most regarding immigration reform itself was the “path to citizenship,” which has received a lot of attention from opponents of the Senate bill. Vilsack repeated the oft-heard sound bite that immigrants currently in the country illegally would have to “go to the back of the line.” He also stressed that those who have come into the country illegally must pay penalty payments and back taxes “which can amount to thousands of dollars.”

The very real and realworld issue of how illegal-immigrants-turned-legal-agricultural-workers will be able to pay several thousands of dollars of fines and back taxes was not addressed.

Vilsack also made a point of countering some usual complaints against the Senate’s immigration reform bill, though none of those media members involved with the call brought them up.

“It’s disingenuous to call this amnesty or a free pass. These people [those in the country illegally] will need to be patient.”

He estimated that the “path to citizenship” could take 10-13 years for those who had “done it wrong.”

The Senate immigration bill includes a lengthy section regarding agricultural workers, including a program for earned legal status (the “blue card” program) and eventually citizenship. Among other things, those individuals who worked for at least 100 work days or 575 hours in “agricultural employment” during 2010-2012 can, along with their dependents, apply for blue card status. The application includes several processing fees and at least one penalty payment of $100.

According to the report, the blue card system would allow an estimated 1.5 million agriculture workers and their dependents to obtain legal status. It also estimated an improved immigration system including the Senate’s proposed W-3 and W-4 temporary agricultural worker visas would increase the number of legal temporary agricultural workers. The report included a number of estimates of how such an expansion would improve the overall output and exports of American agriculture in the next 15 years, as can be seen in Table 1.

Border issues

When it comes to the topic of immigration reform, the issue of border security is often central in the minds of those involved. The report closed with quotes from “key agriculture and rural stakeholders” and many commented on the need for border security in the same “breath” as the need for a secure agricultural work force. The quote from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association was a great example.

“A strong year-round workforce is paramount to the success of the cattle industry. Cattlemen and [sic] depend on a legal and stable workforce year round. We recognize that the first step in ensuring the success of our workforce is securing and maintaining our borders. The conversations taking place on the Hill right now are keeping these issues front and center and we truly appreciate those efforts.”

While the issue of border security features heavily in the Senate bill, neither the report nor Vilsack mentioned the topic more than in passing.

The report can be found online in PDF form online at fault/files/uploads/ag-ru ral-report-07292013.pdf. The full text of the Senate immigration bill can be found online in either text or PDF form at http://thom ?c113:S.744:. Be aware that it is a very large document and the PDF version will take a while to load. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor