The way U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sees it, the issue of immigration reform boils down to a simple choice: we can either import workers or we can import food.
Vilsack was the luncheon keynote speaker at the annual spring meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington, D.C., last week. He told journalists that he thinks importing workers is a far better option, both for the American economy and national security.
The Secretary said migration is a common theme in American agriculture: the outward migration of young people from rural areas to jobs in urban areas, the inward migration of workers from other countries to fill the labor void in rural America and the increasing movement of finished products from American farms and processing plants to consumers overseas.
Vilsack said he sees an additional migration of crops to the north or to the south because of changing climate conditions.
"Americans should not take it for granted that there will always be American-grown food for their table," he said. "We have to make a commitment to making sure that the workers are there to help with the planting, tending and harvesting of those crops."
He said up to 70% of the workers on American farms today do not have legal documentation to be working in the country and that providing those workers the opportunity to keep their jobs, stay in this country and eventually become citizens is essential.
"Beyond that," he said, "there has to be a workable guest worker program that provides a legal way to replace those workers when they move up to better jobs."
He said he sees a vital role for USDA in helping keep track of workers in the U.S.
"USDA has an existing footprint in every county in America," he said. "The Department of Labor does not have that infrastructure. It only makes sense to use the existing USDA presence to help in whatever way possible to keep track of farm workers."
Farm worker representatives, ag employers also weigh in
Convention attendees also heard from a panel representing varying viewpoints on immigration: Eric Ruark, director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform; Craig Regelbrugge, co-Chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and Diana Tellefson Torres, national vice president of the United Farm Workers and executive director of United Farm Workers Foundation.
Ruark said his organization wants to focus on what is best for the American worker.
"The economy is in the dumps and bringing in more low-wage workers is detrimental to the economy," he said.
He disputed claims that there is an actual shortage of American workers to do the jobs that immigrants are routinely hired to do and insisted that the large, profitable companies that dominate agriculture could afford to pay higher wages that would encourage American workers to take the jobs.
Torres said she brought more than 120 farm workers and children of farm workers to Washington to talk about the issue of immigration reform and about the human beings that work to put the food that most Americans eat every day.
She said her concern is making sure that immigration reform does not create a guest worker program that allows growers to bring new workers into the country and undermine the wages and working conditions of workers who are already here and working.
"There are 1.6 million farm workers in this country now, working in conditions that many of us would hope never to have to experience. Our priority is to see that growers recruit and employ the workers that are already here first, before any expansion of the temporary worker program," she said.
Rugelbrugge say there may be as many as 2 million immigrants working in American agriculture and up to half of them are undocumented.
He argued that there are two very different kinds of American agriculture, both of which draw heavily on immigrants for their labor force. One is the highly mechanized row crop operations that have experienced extreme success in the export market, along with dairy farms and livestock operations that are looking for long-term to permanent employees.
The other is the labor-intensive specialty crops that tend to be more seasonal.
"The perishable nature of their product and the rural location, along with cyclical layoffs make it hard to attract and keep labor," he said.
He disputed the notion that most farming operations are "huge, highly profitable, corporate businesss."
"The large corporate farm is largely a myth," he said. "The overwhelming number of America's 2.2 million farms are family farms. They may be incorporated, but the shareholders are all members of the same family."
He also noted that even as the U.S. hammers out immigration policy, demographics and circumstances are changing.
"Solutions that made sense 15 years ago are not on the table today," he said. "Things are changing. Mexico has been the largest provider of American farm labor, but the birth rate in Mexico has fallen to 2.4, the economy is improving and we need new strategies to compete."
Pressed to talk about areas of agreement, Ruark said his organization agrees that farm workers should be paid a living wage, that a workable guest worker program is essential and that we as a nation deserve and should have secure and well managed borders.