There are currently an estimated 70,000 immigrant farm workers living in Arizona. These workers are vital to the state’s agriculture industry, working in nearly every facet of farming. The importance of immigrants to Arizona agriculture was illustrated in 2010, when the passage of anti-immigrant law SB 1070 precipitated an exodus of farm workers from the state, contributing to a statewide lettuce shortage. As debate is underway in Washington on possible comprehensive immigration reform, there are few industries more concerned about how the issue will ultimately play out than agriculture.
A plan presented last month by a bipartisan group of eight senators outlines a series of proposals for how current immigration policy should change. Although the plan currently contains few specific prescriptions, one thing that it makes clear is that a special guest worker program would be created for migrant agricultural workers. Although the plan does not reveal how migrant workers in other fields will be treated, migrant farm workers would not only be eligible to become legal guest workers, but those already in this country would be offered a path to citizenship.
The fact that the Senate plan treats migrant farm workers different than workers in other industries illustrates the importance of this workforce to U.S. agriculture. In states like Arizona and Alabama that have made it difficult for undocumented immigrants to find work and for employers to utilize this labor stream, the impact on agriculture has often been extreme. Crops are left to rot in fields as few immigrants are available to harvest them. In addition, regardless of unemployment levels, few native born workers are willing or able to do the backbreaking, poorly remunerated farm work. These facts have shown lawmakers that they must do what they can to ensure a steady supply of migrant labor to the farming industry.
As some in Congress continue to press for harsher anti-immigrant laws and mass deportations, experts estimate that such a move could cost the U.S. economy $2.6 trillion over the next ten years. Agriculture would undoubtedly bear a disproportionate brunt of these costs, as 75 percent of all farm workers are immigrants, 53 percent of those undocumented.
Immigrant workers and farm owners are looking anxiously toward Washington today, hoping that lawmakers there do what is in the best interest of their industry. The result of the ongoing immigration debate could mean the difference between a profitable harvest season and fields of rotting produce.