What is something that touches every part of agriculture in the U.S.?
It is involved with the production and care of livestock and poultry. It is aids in the preparation, planting, care and harvest of fresh produce. It helps refine textile products and gin cotton. It helps maintain a safe and uniform food supply through its work and watchful eye.
It is migrant labor.
Migrant labor affects poultry producers, dairy farms, fruit and vegetable farms, agriculture processing industries and, outside of agriculture, America’s infrastructure through construction and skilled blue-collar labor.
Jared and I had the opportunity to listen in on a discussion between farmers and legislators on Alabama’s new immigration and migrant labor law. We weren’t there to participate; we don’t have a need for migrant labor on our farm, but we were there with friends from Central Alabama that were concerned about the effect this new law would have on the produce market, future laborers (they don’t currently have migrant labors working for them) and how it would impact the state overall.
What I expected to be a dry commentary on the expectations of the new law turned out to be a passionate, fiery debate between the people who feed our world and those that regulate it.
From what I understand, the law will require (as of Sept. 1*) schools and employers to inquire into the immigration status of students and employees or new-hires. It also makes it illegal to transport or harbor an illegal immigrant.
That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
Farmers at the meeting voiced their concern over what lawmakers are calling “unintended consequences.”
How will they be able to find labor during harvest?
How will they be able to find reliable labor?
What happens if an applicant’s information works out in E-Verify only for inspectors to discover they are an alien? Does that make the farmer a felon?
What happens if we stop to help someone in need (i.e. broken down on the side of the road) and are later pulled over and investigated for “transporting” or aiding an illegal alien?
How are we allowed to inquire about their citizenship status when federal law says we aren’t allowed to ask?
Law makers are concerned about what the “other 80%” (read non-agriculture) in the state want. And rightly so, that’s their job. However, they voiced the words “unintended consequences” when speaking of the freshly pressed law and its unintended impact and burden on agriculture. One of which being, how do you correct a problem over night that has been developing for more than twenty years? How will farms and agriculture industries that depend on these traveling workers and families survive if no one can help them harvest their crops? (Take in consideration that it only takes one day for some produce crops to ripen past the point to being usable in the market.) How will we rebuild cities like Tuscaloosa that were decimated by tornadoes if the work force decreases dramatically and suddenly on Sept. 1?
Below are a few quotes I managed to tweet from the discussion. Not all of them have names associated with them–it was difficult to catch-all of the farms, businesses and associations that were rattled off at the beginning of their floor time.
North Alabama Poultry Farmer: “This issue isn’t about cheap labor, this is about being able to get labor… we can’t get anyone else.”
Farmer (crop unknown): “People (here) won’t work temporary labor. It messes up their unemployment checks, food stamps and other benefits.”
North Alabama Peach Farmer: “This ain’t about my family’s been in this for six generations. This is can we pay our bills and sustain business?”
Cotton Ginner: “These immigrant families count on us–we want to send them home happy after harvest, they have families too.”
Agriculture business owner: “These workers ARE skilled. You learn through experience, these people have more skills than average high schoolers…”
Then, a blond hair, blue-eyed American woman stood up: “My husband is a migrant. When he finally became a citizen I cried. He has been in their shoes…We own a restaurant, if we lose our workers we may close. We can’t find Americans (and I am one)that will work like people from his country.”
The meeting ended with a scolding from legislators asking why farmers didn’t voice their opinion earlier. They also voiced the other 80%’s concern with increased traffic in emergency rooms, overflowing classrooms and generally having illegals suck up resources that red-blooded American’s bought and paid for. (sarcasm there on the last point, sorry folks…)
The consensus of the group was:
No one was happy with how the law worked out but it could be amended and reworked.
That farmers need to be more vocal in Montgomery.
AND, that farmers need to start sharing their story with the “other 80%.”
I guess the Agvocate revolution is finally making its march to the South. ‘Bout darn time.
In the mean time, migrant labor that was once so abundant is becoming more scarce, farmers are developing a few more worry wrinkles and the Federal government has temporarily blocked* the new immigration law.
This isn’t a cut and dry issue. Some people will say, “If they aren’t legal they shouldn’t be here.” And they are right. But how do you bridge the gap or help with the transition when so many industries have come to depend on migrant labor?
To me, it seems like we are trying to snatch the tablecloth out from under an already set table. If we do it quickly, it’s just going to get messy.
So, what’s the solution?
Honestly, I don’t know.
But, there is a solution out there and I want to hear your opinion on the matter.
What are your thoughts on this issue? If you’re from a different state, what are conditions like there? Do you lean more toward quick action or a slow reduction of migrant labor in the U.S.?
Post your comments below–I’m off my soapbox now–I want to hear different perspectives!
*Note: WordPress’ hyperlink option is not working. As soon as I can fix the problem I will add news articles pertaining to the issue. Until then, you can use Google News for the latest information.