The U.S. agriculture sector is an important part of American culture and economy. In 2013, it contributed $789 billion to U.S. GDP. Especially in the Midwest, American agriculture relies heavily on immigrant laborers. In the ongoing debate over immigration reform, Midwest agriculture needs special consideration.
Between 2000 and 2012 alone, U.S. consumption of fresh produce rose by 10.5 percent, while U.S. production rose only by 1.4 percent. This gap between consumption and production has resulted in a 38 percent increase in the import of fruits and vegetables. U.S. farmers have been unable to maintain their share of the domestic market. Lack of labor alone resulted in a 27 percent decline in the market share for US growers and as much as $3.3 billion in missed GDP growth in 2012. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, if U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable growers maintained the domestic share market they held between 1998-2000, there would have been an estimated $4.9 billion in additional farming income and 89,300 more jobs in 2012 alone.
U.S. farmers are facing serious labor challenges precipitated by the shortfalls of the H-2A visa program. Currently the H-2A visa program allows US employers to bring foreign nationals to the US to fill low-skill, temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs for which US workers are not available. The U.S. employers can higher laborers for renewable 10-month periods. Many employers say that the H-2A program has too many complicated rules and high costs. This has encouraged many employers to hire undocumented workers.
While the H-2A is supposed to prioritize employment for American citizens, many employers have found that many just do not want those jobs. In 2012, the South Carolina Growers Assn. advertised for 8,000 jobs and just over 250 U.S. workers applied, and of these 250 only 10 finished the season. Overall, only around 6.4 percent of H-2A workers fill U.S. farm jobs. Undocumented workers fill most of the over 1 million farm jobs every year.
It is self-evident that foreign-born labor is extremely important for the Agriculture Sector. Appropriate immigration reform for Midwest agriculture could result in an increase in economic activity domestically, decrease our reliance on foreign food imports, and would curb the amount of undocumented workers. By working with U.S. agriculture producers to streamline the H-2A visa process, undocumented workers currently in the agriculture sector can attain legal working status.
Economically, with Americans spending around 12.9 percent per household income on food, if more immigrant workers had H-2A visas the Agricultural sector of the economy could begin to reclaim its position in the domestic market. If the majority of workers were on H-2A visas and if production growth equaled consumption growth then the percentage of food imported into the country would drop drastically. By reducing the amount of food that is imported, there would be a decrease in spending abroad and leave food producers with more capital to invest domestically.
Since U.S. agriculture relies on immigrant labor, our legislators should keep in mind the effects of immigration policy on the agricultural hiring practices and the possible economic gains in agriculture.