In recently talking with apple grower Jim Koan, the topic of harvest and the labor that it requires was a hot topic. America's failed immigration system has left a lot of uncertainty about the availability of skilled migrate labor. Michigan, in particular, relies heavily on migrant labor to pick our vast array of specialty fruits and vegetables from asparagus to apples.
However, relief from this uncertainty is on the horizon as the U.S. Senate, June 27, passed an Immigration Bill that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says will allow millions of farm works, who currently live in the shadows, an appropriate opportunity to earn legal status while contributing to America's agricultural economy.
Why is this so important to Koan, who owns Almar Orchards in Flushing, when Michigan has such a high employment rate? Why can't he hire from amongst our thousands of state residents who are seeking work? Koan has a quick answer… they are not skilled. On the surface, picking apples doesn't sound all that difficult, especially if your family is hungry and you need an income. Wouldn't you do about anything at that point?
Koan says, undoubtedly, he has some local interest each year in working on the farm. He's tried on numerous occasions to hire from the area, but each time it's failed. They usually quit by the second week, if not before, he says.
Apple pickers are paid by the volume, requiring extreme efficiency. Most American workers do not have the skill set to be quick enough to make a decent wage. And, let's face it, it's hot outside and it's hard, physical work – sadly something most Americans are not familiar with. Koan calls his migrant labor, professional apple pickers.
The Senate's bipartisan action – amazing in and of itself – with a vote of 68-32 is a forward step in securing access to these professionals. Fourteen Republicans joined a united Democratic caucus in supporting the bill, which is backed by the White House. As with anything political, the bill is long worded, roughly1,200-pages, but it promises to overhaul immigration laws for the first time since 1986. It also strengthens the Social Security system and tightens security along the Mexican border.
The reform will implement a mandatory, national employment verification system and eventually give green cards to immigrants who pass background checks and pay fines.
But, as with the stalled Farm Bill, the House is contaminated by political posturing. Already Republican Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam told reporters the bill is a "pipe dream" that will never pass the House.
At contention is border security, which the Senate bill addresses by doubling Border Patrol officers and increasing fencing on the southern border by about 700 miles – at a cost of about $46 billion over 10 years. The Senate bill says this has to be done before any unauthorized immigrants are offered permanent legal status. But, that's not enough for the House, which wants no unauthorized immigrant be offered even temporary legal status until all the beefed up security is in place.
It's clear this is going to be an uphill battle in the House, which has hinted that it would be developing its own immigration bill. For the sake of Michigan agriculture and farmers across the country, we need change and we need it now. The House needs to stop taking hostages and start taking action.