WASHINGTON — A broad immigration system overhaul would represent an economic boost for those in farm country, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.
It's the latest tactic in the Obama administration's efforts to persuade the GOP-controlled House to pass an immigration bill.
The White House released a report Monday featuring an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources that highlights foreign workers' importance to the agricultural sector, which has faced labor shortages in some parts of the country.
“The bottom line is simply that the lack of labor will today — and will in the future if it continues — result in a decrease in agricultural production, a decrease in agricultural outputs and exports,” Vilsack said, “which obviously will cost farm income and jobs and the economy.”
The immigration bill approved by the Senate would provide a path to citizenship for unauthorized farmworkers and would establish a new temporary worker program that was negotiated by grower associations and farmworker groups.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, noted that the immigration issue has united traditionally opposing groups: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO; the Western Growers Association and the United Farm Workers Union; and religious leaders from across the political spectrum.
About half of the 1.1 million farmworkers in the country are working without authorization, according to the report released Monday, with nearly two-thirds of new entrants to the workforce lacking authorization.
Still, it's clear that the situation is most pressing for fruit and vegetable producers who are particularly dependent on seasonal migrant laborers. For the most part, that describes regions far from Nebraska and Iowa.
In California, 73 percent of farmworkers are noncitizens, according to the report.
In contrast, 7 percent of farmworkers in Nebraska and 10 percent in Iowa are noncitizens.
Some of Nebraska's dairy operations use immigrant labor, said Steve Nelson, head of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, but it's not a major source of workers for most farming and ranching operations in the state.
Still, Nelson said it's important for U.S. agriculture as a whole to have a solid agricultural guest worker program.
And Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill noted that many of the meat-processing facilities rely on workers who might not have all their documentation. Those workers are important for livestock producers in the region.
Hill said his organization would be talking to Iowa's congressional delegation over the August recess about the benefits that an immigration bill would hold for agriculture. It is unlikely to win over a hard-liner such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, but it might have more success with Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.
“It's important for agriculture. It's important for, I think, the citizens of the U.S. that eat,” Hill said. “It will have an impact on food prices if we don't have this labor.”