US farmers, desperate for help, increasingly turn to Mexico

“ The immigration problem has become magnified and hidden within the Republican efforts to control the borders are heartland Republican States whose needs are critically tied to Trump’s zero-tolerance policy”

What does US immigration policy have to do with the blueberries you buy? Well, if it weren’t for foreign farmhands, some growers would have to watch their fruit and vegetables rot in their fields. Just ask Gary and Patty Bartley, prizewinning farmers in Michigan who left $200,000 to $300,000 worth of crops unharvested last year because not a single person applied for their job ads. The strong economy that has caused labor shortages in many industries has sharpened an already chronic problem in agriculture that dates back to 9/11, when heightened security concerns resulted in tighter border control. Farmers are hoping Congress will implement a more efficient guest-worker program, but such proposals are usually tied to sweeping immigration reform legislation that is almost impossible to get passed. “We’ve been held hostage to comprehensive immigration reform a couple times,” says Fred Leitz, a Michigan farmer who recently served as president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. “I’ve seen that movie. I know how it ends.” So there’s been a spike in Michigan growers bringing up Mexican farmhands over the past few years. Though expensive and cumbersome, it’s still better than leaving their crops for the birds.

AMERICA’S HEARTLAND:

The apple trees were heavy with fruit, and the rows and rows of tomatoes, squash, and hot peppers were ripe for picking. But in the end, Gary and Patty Bartley, prizewinning farmers in western Michigan, had to leave $200,000 to $300,000 worth of their crops to rot in their fields last year.

They couldn’t find enough people to pick everything.

That was not for lack of trying. They had urged their domestic migrant workers to return, but only 12 did – about a third of the crew size they needed. The Bartleys placed ads in papers out of state and advertised all season with the Michigan state workforce development agency. Not a single person applied.

So this year they did something their lawyer had told them they should never do: enroll in an expensive and cumbersome visa program known as H-2A to bring up workers from Mexico.

Since the Michigan Farm Bureau set up a for-profit affiliate four years ago to provide guidance navigating the red tape, the number of Michigan growers using the program has jumped from four to 50. And the Bartleys’ lawyer, seeing the decline in migrant workers, changed her mind and became the lawyer for the affiliate, Great Lakes Agricultural Labor Services.

The challenge is that H-2As make a significant dent in farmers’ profits. The program costs $1,600 to $1,800 per worker in fees, plus the grower must provide free housing, linens, equipped kitchens, and regular transportation to buy groceries and other supplies.

“Nobody goes into H-2A because it’s fun or it’s cheap or it’s just a good time,” says Bob Boehm, program manager for Great Lakes Ag. “We’re trying to create an option where they can keep farming.”

Two workers from Mexico help plant stakes in western Michigan fields farmed by Gary and Patty Bartley. They brought the workers to their farm through the expensive H-2A visa program, which they’re using for the first time this year.

The strong economy that has caused labor shortages in many industries has sharpened an already chronic problem in agriculture that dates back to 9/11, when heightened security concerns resulted in tighter border control. The domestic migrant workforce has been thinning out as parents approach retirement age, and their children pursue more lucrative work opportunities. And since many migrant laborers came to the United States illegally, they’re worried about crossing state lines and getting caught, especially since some states are more aggressive about cracking down on undocumented workers.

Another challenge: a tax-filing change in 1996, which critics of illegal immigration say has allowed undocumented immigrants to receive thousands more in tax credits than they pay in taxes each year – at a cost of $1.5 billion annually. With more benefits, immigrants may be less likely to work.

Farmers are desperate for the labor situation to be addressed. The H-2A program may be an increasingly popular stop-gap measure, but it’s not a long-term solution.

Growers are keeping a close eye on Congress as the GOP leadership puts forward immigration reform bills this week.

“I think the opportunity is there, we just need them to rise to the occasion,” says John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

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