Flashback 1998 — Commentary: Farm labor: Time is running out

From the Harvester, September – October 1998

When Congress was considering sweeping changes to our nation’s immigration laws back in 1986, perishable agriculture was justifiably concerned that employer sanctions would wreak havoc on an industry that relied heavily on an undocumented workforce. Lawmakers responded to those concerns by including a massive legalization program in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that ultimately provided documentation to well over 1 million agricultural workers. Many members of Congress believed they had finally ensured that growers of perishable crops would have access to a legal workforce.

Well, some things never change – they just get postponed. Today, some 12 years later, agriculture once again faces a serious dilemma. Although virtually the entire workforce is “documented,” it is not necessarily “legal.” In recent years, an increasing number of agricultural workers are here illegally. The Department of Labor in 1995 pegged the number at some 37 percent. If IRCA did nothing else, it developed a cottage industry in the United States for forged documents. Caught in the middle of all this are employers who must ensure their workers’ documentation is on file but not inspect it so closely that they might be found in violation of anti-discrimination laws.

Federal agencies, including the Border Patrol, have been given more resources and added congressional authority over the past several years in an effort to crack down on employers and workers alike. The result? A tight labor supply, and in some cases outright labor shortages for agriculture in Florida and elsewhere around the country.

The situation is likely to worsen for the 1998-99 season unless legislation is passed that creates a truly viable temporary agricultural worker program. The current H-2A program – the only program available to employers – is fraught with problems. It’s expensive, cumbersome and largely inflexible. In recent studies, both the General Accounting Office and Department of Labor’s own inspector general said the program needs a substantial overhaul. It’s essential that a temporary worker program be easy to use, affordable and structured so that workers will be there when and where employers need them.

The status quo should not be acceptable to anyone. The Congress and the Administration should act now. Let’s not wait until we have large-scale labor shortages or crop losses before the needed changes are made.

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