The United States is blessed with a rich agricultural bounty which provides food not only for U.S. consumers, but also for a growing world population. American farmers are the most productive food producers in the world. In fact, each farmer feeds more than 120 people at home and abroad.
George Washington once said that "Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment to man." Although I’m biased, I couldn’t agree more. I have a special interest in today’s hearing because I am a family farmer. I understand the agricultural needs of my state. However, I also know that the needs of California and Vermont, for example, are different from Iowa. Even though our industries are not identical, our interests and goals are the same. We must be able to meet the needs of agriculture. We must look for solutions that serve the industry and our country in the long-run.
America’s agricultural industry depends, in part, on the ability of farmers and ranchers to recruit and hire workers. Unfortunately, more than half of today’s U.S. agricultural workforce is undocumented. Some employers claim it’s because Americans will not perform the hard work that is required. Some are using undocumented labor to cut costs. Regardless of the reason, we find ourselves in a situation where employers are hiring illegal workers, allowing them to undercut their competition and to ignore the legal avenues we have in place to bring in foreign workers.
I am well aware of the legislative proposals that would put millions of agricultural workers on a path to citizenship. I was here in 1986 when we legalized more than one million workers in the Special Agricultural Worker program, known as SAW. We underestimated how many people would come forward and take advantage of it. We weren’t prepared to root out the fraud, and there was plenty of it. More importantly, in 1986 we said it would be a one-time fix. It’s obvious we were wrong. We certainly cannot go down that road again.
Instead, we must consider a long-term solution to the industry’s needs. The answer is to reform our current agricultural guestworker program known as the H-2A visa program.
Senator Chambliss has a bill, S. 1384, or the Harvest Act, that would make significant improvements to the H2A visa program. I agree with many aspects of Senator Chambliss’ proposal, including making sure we streamline the process for employers and reducing the red tape that comes with using the program. I am a proponent for expanding the program to include various agricultural industries in the program, such as dairy, animal agriculture and agricultural processing. Many employers in my home state say they’re unable to use the program because it’s restricted to seasonal or temporary work. We must make the program work better for those who desperately need the workers. I hope to hear some constructive suggestions today to that end.
While I am a champion of the ag industry, I do have concerns that many agricultural employers are convinced that they won’t survive if they are required to electronically verify their workers. E-Verify is a useful tool that’s accessible to anyone with a computer. It’s reliable. It’s free. It’s web-based and easy to use. More importantly, it’s helpful for employers who want to abide by the law and employ a legal workforce.
Opponents of E-Verify, I’m afraid, are using agriculture to argue against mandatory E-Verify participation. I have long said that E-Verify must be a staple in every workplace, and that includes the agricultural sector. I’m not in favor of carving out exemptions for certain industries, and I am willing to do what I can for small businesses and industries that need help to fully comply with potential requirements.
I thank the Chairman for holding this hearing today, and I’m glad we have a well-rounded group of witnesses to discuss the labor needs surrounding agriculture. I’m also glad to be a part of the discussion on how to improve the current immigration system to ensure that they have access to the workers they truly need. I hope my colleagues will join me in this effort to help the farmers and ranchers that feed America.