United Fresh urges Congress against mandating E-Verify system for agriculture
- The United Fresh Produce Association is asking Congress not to pass a bill requiring agricultural employers to use the E-Verify system of checking potential hires for their eligibility to legally work in the U.S., according to an article in The Packer.
- The group is targeting the Legal Workforce Act, introduced Sept. 8 by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. The bill is co-sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-California. Smith said his bill addresses the problem of 7 million people working in the country illegally.
- According to The Packer, United Fresh Produce wants to encourage Congress to make sure "a comprehensive solution is achieved for agriculture" before it replaces the current paper I-9 system with a costlier electronic system.
The government's immigration policies are understandably a major concern for the United Fresh Produce Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing the entire produce supply chain from small family businesses to large international corporations. U.S. agriculture heavily relies on migrant labor to harvest and process crops — particularly in California.
Although it is currently voluntary for agricultural employers, E-Verify is already mandatory for federal contractors, some state contractors, and companies that want to participate in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training program when hiring foreign graduates of U.S. colleges.
Making this change could have an enormous impact on the entire industry. For starters, increasing producers' costs for new hire screening — and the time and equipment investment needed to use the system — would likely be passed on to U.S. consumers along the line.
It could also drastically impact the face and composition of the nation's agricultural workforce. Mandating E-Verify might help limit undocumented workers on the farms and fields, but how would growers replace them? According to 2012 research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, undocumented immigrants comprise about half of the nation's agricultural workforce. Growers who have recently looked to hire U.S. citizens or permanent residents have reported difficulty finding adequate employees — even after increasing wages.
So what should Congress do about the issue? The answer is not clear. Expanding the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers visa program — the guest worker program in effect now — is an option. The program has seen increased use over the past few years as the number of undocumented workers coming into the country has gone down — but agricultural producers have complained that it's both cumbersome and expensive.
A pathway to legal residency plan also might not be ideal, since not all migrant workers seek that status. Many have said they are here temporarily and plan to go back home once they save up enough money.
Congress faces a challenging agenda between now and the end of the current session, and the problem of undocumented workers is vying for attention with proposals for continued government funding, raising the debt ceiling, enacting tax reform and disaster relief. It's unclear whether these kinds of reforms — which President Trump campaigned on and are popular with his base — will see action in time to impact this season's crops, or if more favorable opinions on migrant farm workers will prevail in the policy arena.