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Rep: U.S. faces agriculture 'crisis' without farm-worker visa reform

By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
  • A congressional hearing focuses on migrant farm-worker visas
  • Rep: "Simply not enough Americans willing ... to take the jobs of migrant farm workers"
  • The Labor Department says nearly half of farm workers in the U.S. admit they are illegal
  • Another congressman says if reforms are not enacted, the US. faces "a crisis in agriculture"

Washington (CNN) -- The agricultural industry in the United States could face a crisis if the country doesn't find a way to attract more legal farm workers from abroad soon. That's one of the conclusions reached Wednesday at a congressional hearing.

The House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement met to evaluate a migrant farm-worker visa program frequently used by Mexicans to legally work on farms and ranches across the United States. The H-2A visa program was created for that purpose back in the late 1980s.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-California, in his opening remarks as chairman of the subcommittee, said, "There are simply not enough Americans willing to do, to take the jobs of migrant farm workers. In fact, our government's policy for generations has been to remove Americans from such labor."

The lack of American farm workers and the labor needs of the agricultural industry coupled with low wages in Mexico create a situation in which the demand attracts many Mexican workers who enter the United States legally or otherwise.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, which canvasses hired farm workers, over the period of 2007 to 2009, 48% of farm workers in the country admitted they were in the United States illegally.

The agricultural industry has repeatedly asked the federal government to streamline and expedite the H-2A visa program as its labor needs have grown over the years.

Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association -- an organization with 600 grower members and the largest H-2A program user in the country -- said the current program is ineffective. Wicker called it "costly, time-consuming, and flawed. Farmers have to complete a lengthy labor certification process that's slow, bureaucratic, and frustrating."

Immigration remains a political hot-button issue in the country. Far from finding a way to legalize farm workers already in the country, many legislators at the federal and local levels are calling for stronger enforcement of the current immigration laws.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said the argument that the country doesn't have enough farm workers and therefore has to import them is flawed. "I'm thinking about a nation that has a lot of people that are riding along on this boat and not pulling on the oars. Wouldn't a logical nation want to employ all of those that are eligible to work before they would bring people in, especially given that we have 71 welfare programs?" said King.

But Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, the subcommittee's ranking member, said Wednesday at the hearing that a hard approach, including deportations, wouldn't solve the problem.

"If we somehow deported the 1 (million) to 1.5 million undocumented workers on our farms and ranches right now, there are too few Americans jumping at the change to fill those jobs, and I suspect that's why we're having this hearing," Lofgren said.

Agricultural states like California and Florida would greatly benefit from an expedited visa program for farm workers. But Rep. Dan Lungren, D-California, says the appetite for such measures in the U.S. Congress is just not there.

"I doubt anybody running for president, including the incumbent, is going to run on the fact that he's going to be softer on immigration enforcement that he has been," Lungren said.

He went further, saying that if no action is taken, "we're going to have... a crisis in agriculture."