Wanted: farmworkers County agricultural leaders say industry needs immigrant labor
BY KAREN SHUEY, Staff Writer
They work with the sun beating down on their backs during a heat wave.
They breathe in the smell of manure as they till the soil and fertilize fields.
They kneel in the mud as they pick strawberries during a thunderstorm.
Every day in Lancaster County, hundreds of immigrants are helping local farmers do the work that too few local residents are willing to do.
"Immigrants are essential laborers in the agricultural community," said Tony Brubaker, of Mount Joy's Brubaker Farms. "Farming is a 24 hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year job, and it's hard to find people willing to work on that kind of schedule."
Scott Sheely agrees.
That's why Sheely, the executive director of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council, is applauding a sweeping immigration reform bill that supports the agriculture industry by revamping the visa program for farmworkers.
Sheely said the tentative bipartisan agreement reached by eight U.S. senators, which is now being debated in Washington, is a huge step forward.
But it's a delicate one.
Agricultural leaders across the nation, and here at home, have been pushing for decades for comprehensive reform that would include a guest worker program and a shot at citizenship for farmworkers.
There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. As many as 70 percent of agricultural workers are in the country illegally.
Lisa Graybeal, a manager of Graywood Farms in Peach Bottom, said the existing system doesn't work because workers must undergo a complicated, time-consuming and costly process.
But the reforms proposed in the legislation crafted by a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators, Graybeal said, would make things easier for industries that rely on immigrant labor.
The agreement would establish a new "blue card" for migrant agricultural workers already in this country without legal permission, and allow up to 336,000 visas for farmworkers in a guest-worker program.
To be eligible for the blue card, immigrants first must have at least a two-year work history. And, like other applicants, they must pass a criminal background check and pay fines and taxes.
The provisions will ensure that dairy, fruit and vegetable farmers have a year-round supply of labor. Dairy farmers in particular have been hampered because current guest-worker programs apply to seasonal workers and do not account for year-round agricultural operations like dairy.
Graybeal, who had a hand in helping to shape the bill by testifying in Washington on behalf of the National Milk Producers Federation, said the legislation is a "sweeping victory for the farming industry."
Brubaker said it would be "nearly impossible" to fill all the positions on his staff with American employees, and is thankful for the hard work of his foreign-born workers.
When immigration legislation had been debated in the past, some conservative organizations argued that immigrants are taking the jobs of American-born citizens. Fewer people, however, hold that view this time around.
That may have something to do with a 2011 analysis by the conservative American Enterprise Institute that found that "immigrant workers actually increase the opportunities and incomes of Americans."
Brubaker pointed out that getting rid of illegal farmworkers would have a marked impact on retail food prices.
In addition to higher prices, Brubaker said, immigrant workers ensure food security and safety that otherwise might not be there.
Graybeal sides with Brubaker.
"We would have a worker shortage," she said. "Most Americans have turned their focus to getting jobs in the service and tech industries, so we've had to adjust with the work force we do have."
Fluent in Spanish, Graybeal manages Graywood Farm's nine immigrant employees, who help with the milking of more than 720 Holstein cows on 1,300 acres.
"If the reform goes through, it would open a new door for us and allow us to retain the workers our family has come to know so well," she said.
Presently, immigrant workers come to Graywood Farms through the H2-A visa program. One of the long-standing objections to the H2-A program is that it is geared toward seasonal workers.
That works for crops but not so well for dairy and other farm enterprises that need year-round help.
H2-A visas are generally good for less than a year. When the visa expires, the worker has to return to his or her home country for three months before applying for another H2-A.
"The program has been in need of fixing for quite some time, and the proposals being discussed now take a good approach at finding a solution," said Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
O'Neill said support for the bill from the agricultural community is piling up.
National organizations representing farmworkers and the agricultural employers back the legislation for a number of reasons.
"Farmers wouldn't lose experienced workers, future workers would move through an improved visa system -- it really is a good deal," he said.
Sheely said he is optimistic the bill, or at least the parts having to do with agriculture, will make it through.
The time seems right.
President Barack Obama has made immigration reform a top priority in his second term, and has asked Congress to expedite the bill introduced by the bipartisan group.
"We just need to get this settled, and give immigrants a fair deal," Sheely said. "It's a balancing act. We don't want to open the floodgates, but we need the labor immigrants provide."