I’m a fourth-generation farmer in southwestern Michigan, and like most farmers, I depend on a reliable workforce to stay in business. But bad immigration policies threaten my livelihood. As this year’s harvest approaches, I have to cross my fingers and hope that I’ll have enough workers to hand-pick the tomatoes, cucumbers, berries and apples that help feed thousands of people in Michigan and the Midwest.
Farmers like myself face a number of problems finding workers. I spend thousands of dollars every year advertising my job openings, but few Americans reply. Those I do hire usually leave after a few weeks, because they find the work too hard. I lose time and money, and I’m forced to scramble for replacements.
In 2015, in order to address this problem, I turned to the H-2A visa program, which lets me to bring about 160 temporary workers from Mexico. They work hard, are dependable, and have the skills to keep my farm running smoothly. And yet H-2A comes with its own challenges.
First, if an American with agricultural experience shows up asking for a job, I’m required to send an H-2A worker home and hire the American. And without fail, that American quits shortly after. Yet again, I’m down a worker. Second, H-2A is expensive. I spend about $1,600 per worker, because I’m responsible for all their transportation, housing, visa and consulate fees. Third, H-2A is filled with so much bureaucracy that workers often arrive late. If they get to my farm past a certain date, I’m back to square one: unpicked produce rotting in the fields and a loss of income.
It’s no wonder that 36.1 percent of agriculture workers in this country are undocumented; H-2A is too unreliable and expensive for many small farms.
My farm only hires legal workers, but I’ll be honest: I wish we could turn the undocumented workers into a legal workforce. This could help fix our labor shortage. Instead, the government is making things worse. In Michigan and across the country, deportations of immigrants without criminal records have soared in the past year.
Instead of diverting valuable resources from our courts and law enforcement agencies, let’s devote our energy toward helping the economy. Work-authorize undocumented immigrants, help reverse our labor shortage, and let these hard-working individuals come out of the shadows. Let their children, the 800,000 Dreamers, go through the process of citizenship. All told, that would be many millions of people making legal economic contributions to our country.
I’m a conservative who voted for Trump, and I want to see our nation’s leaders work together to pass comprehensive immigration reform. As an American citizen, I want to know who’s in our country and that means I want order around immigration. It means work authorization for those already working here, a clear-cut path to citizenship for Dreamers, a less prohibitive visa system for agricultural and non-agricultural workers and a reliable e-verify system.
This is the economically smart thing to do. If leaders truly care about American farmers and want to avoid an economic crisis in this industry – and a food security crisis in our country – they’d protect American food sources and the people who provide them. American farmers are already stretched so thin. We need to be given the best tools and systems to keep this cornerstone American industry alive and thriving.
Fred Leitz is a farmer who lives in Sodus.