Immigration reform bills moving through Congress will be vital to the survival of rural communities and farmers, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.
Vilsack addressed the issue in a press call, simultaneously announcing the release of a White House Report, "Fixing Our Broken Immigration System: The Economic Benefits to Agriculture and rural Communities."
Based on surveys compiled in the paper, the Department of Labor shows that half of those who are working in farm fields are likely undocumented. Vilsack noted that of those working less than two years, close to three-quarters of those workers are here without proper documentation.
The paper also quantifies the scope of the immigrant workforce in U.S. agriculture, the impact of the elimination of immigration and the potential for new visa programs to expand the agricultural workforce.
"A lack of labor will today, and will in the future if it continues, result in a decrease in agricultural production, a decrease in agricultural outputs and exports," Vilsack said, noting that combination will cost the economy farm income and jobs.
Vilsack also touched on the potential of immigration reform to positively impact food security and availability – but only if the House moves forward on its proposed legislation.
The Senate passed its version of the bill in June, but the House has yet to consider its version on the floor.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition and the United Farm Workers supported the Senate's immigration proposal, which was crafted with their input. A very different proposal from the House, however, was not as well received. Workers said the proposal limited a "pathway to citizenship" for agricultural laborers, among other concerns.
But Vilsack said regardless of the specific proposal, overall reform will provide employment security for workers and improve working conditions, as well as providing a fair market for all employers.
In addition to workers' benefits, rural communities could see expanded revenue, growing populations, better food security and a stronger social security program, Vilsack added.
According to a Regional Economic Models, Inc., survey in the White House paper, an expanded H-2A visa program – like the one in the Senate bill – would raise GDP by approximately $2 billion in 2014 and $9.79 billion in 2045.
But not everyone is convinced on the merits of the immigration reform bills. To that end, Vilsack said the latest report could be used as a tool to explain to elected officials the importance of reform.
For example, projections show South Dakota could generate 300 jobs and save a loss of income of $8-15 million per year if the H-2A program was expanded, an economic situation that Vilsack said otherwise would have elected officials "falling all over themselves" to create.
"I think if you look at each individual state you're going to find numbers that will persuade you that this is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it," Vilsack said.
Read more on Agricultural Immigration:
Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Immigration Reform Bill
Agricultural Immigration Issue Unfolds
Long Week Ahead for Immigration Negotiations
All Parties 'Comfortable' With Ag Immigration Proposal
House Reveals Agricultural Guestworker Proposal