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In Our View: Comprehensive action needed on immigration

The Columbian
Published: March 29, 2024, 6:03am

Despite years of finger-pointing and bluster from both sides, U.S. politicians have declined to effectively address immigration policy. While lawmakers might see it as politically expedient, using the issue as a wedge rather than seeking solutions has mounting deleterious effects.

Some of that impact is detailed in a recent analysis by The Seattle Times, which looks at the status of farmworkers across Washington.

“From 2017 to 2022,” writes the Times, “total hired farm labor in the state dropped 23 percent, dipping at more than twice the national rate, with the greatest contraction recorded among U.S.-based migrant workers who for decades have followed the harvests up the West Coast.”

Domestically based farmworkers — often immigrants who are permanently in the United States — are increasingly competing against foreign workers, who are allowed into the country temporarily under the H-2A guest worker program. Use of H-2A visas has doubled in Washington over the same period.

Therein lies the need for comprehensive action on immigration. It is possible, after all, to secure the southern border while at the same time effectively managing immigration programs that fill holes in the labor market.

That is the purpose of the H-2A program, and it is necessary. As Enrique Gastelum, chief executive of the Washington Farm Labor Association, noted last year: “We still don’t have the U.S. domestic workers coming in to fill jobs. No one is ready, willing and able to do that work here in Washington. In 2022, we had 33,000 available jobs and we had 11 U.S. workers apply for those jobs.”

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, the number of H-2A visas surged. While Trump’s policies generally sought to curb immigration, his administration called migrant farm workers “vital to maintaining and securing the country’s critical food supply chain.”

At the same time, the administration approved limits on wages for H-2A workers, with critics estimating it would transfer $178 million a year from workers to farmers. The Biden administration has rolled back some Trump policies and issued orders providing additional protections for temporary farmworkers.

The back-and-forth of changing policies makes it difficult for employees and employers to plan for the next harvest. It also has a lasting impact on the labor market; uncertainty has contributed to many domestic workers leaving the agriculture industry, increasing the need for foreign workers.

All of this adds up to a shortage of farmworkers and highlights the need for thoughtful congressional action. The labor shortage contributes to inflation and makes it difficult for succulent Washington cherries and apples to get from the tree to your kitchen table.

At the state level, the Legislature this year passed a measure to collect data on H-2A employment and to carry out annual wage surveys of farmworkers. At the national level, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is designed to address labor shortages in the industry.

“The top concern for farmers and ranchers in Central Washington and across the nation is labor, and the problem is only getting worse,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside and one of the original sponsors of the bill. He called H.R. 4319 “the solution to creating a secure, reliable agriculture labor program.”

But this is problematic. Any legislation dealing with farmworkers inevitably must deal with immigration policy. Given the intractability of the issue in Washington, D.C., it seems unlikely that solutions will be forthcoming.