By Barb Arland-Fye
Our growing appreciation for the farmers and laborers whose work sets our dinner table with fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and grains should inspire us to support H.R.1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021. The bill would grant legal status to farm workers and reform the agricultural guest worker program. An estimated 48% of hired crop farm workers lack legal immigration status, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports. Some organizations cite even higher percentages. The bottom line: as the one body of Christ, we depend on one another to flourish.
The bipartisan H.R. 1603 passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2021 but has languished in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urges us to advocate for passage of H.R. 1603 before the current Congress ends Jan. 3, 2023, to avoid having to reintroduce the whole process in the 118th Congress.
These workers “who cultivate our fields, work in food processing plants, and perform other vital duties within our food supply chain” are at risk of “mistreatment, exploitation and dangerous conditions because they lack legal status,” the bishops point out. Catholic Social Teaching instructs us that all people have the right to productive work, just wages and benefits and decent working conditions.
The bishops provide a good synopsis of H.R. 1603, as passed by the House. It would:
• Establish a program for agricultural workers in the United States to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contributions to the U.S. agricultural economy.
• Reform the H-2A guest worker program to provide more flexibility for employers, while ensuring critical protections for workers. “One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is the fact that the number of H-2A positions requested and approved has increased more than fivefold in the past 15 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to just over 275,000 in fiscal year 2020,” the USDA states (https://tinyurl.com/22c9zcz9).
• Establish an E-Verify employment eligibility verification system for all agricultural employment.
The bill is a short read, available on the congress.gov website (https://tinyurl.com/4kk6r9zn).
Other organizations endorsing the bill, in addition to the USCCB, are United Farm Workers, the American Business Immigration Coalition, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The Episcopal Church, the National Immigration Forum, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, among others.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, in an article on its website titled “Why is Labor Important to Farmers?” offers insights from a 2014 study that remain relevant. “At least 50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized. Few U.S. workers are willing to fill available farm labor jobs.” The study also states, “The impacts of an enforcement only approach to immigration would be detrimental to the agricultural industry. If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion.”
Furthermore, “The enforcement only option would increase food prices by 5-6 percent, with domestic fruit production off by 30-61 percent and vegetable production down 15-31 percent. The livestock sector would also suffer lost production in the 13-27 percent range. The ideal approach would be enforcement with an adjustment of status and a redesigned guest worker program. This approach would result in no increase in food prices. There would be minimal decreases in fruit, vegetable, grain, and livestock production” (https://tinyurl.com/2y4np4fw).
Economics is an important part of this issue but it must be at the service of the worker. Retired Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”) “… the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: ‘Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life’” (no. 25).
Contact U.S. Senators Charles Grassley (grassley.senate.gov) and Joni Ernst (ernst.senate.gov) and encourage them to support H.R. 1603 so that everyone is included at the table of plenty.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor