December 9, 2014 | By Sara McElmurry

The Health of Midwest Agriculture Relies on Immigration Reform: New Report

The success of US agriculture rests largely on the shoulders of immigrant labor: Today’s Midwestern farms run with the help of 57,000 migrant workers. Across the country, undocumented workers are 50 percent of our crop production workforce, offsetting a declining number of US citizens willing and able to work in the sector.

But even after President Obama’s recent executive action, our immigration system still doesn’t meet the needs of our agriculture sector, and lack of reform is stalling—and even stunting—its growth.
Employing Agriculture: How the Midwest Farm and Food Sector Relies on Immigrant Labor, a new report released today from The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, examines how outdated visa systems, an unprecedented focus on immigration enforcement, and other regional challenges compromise the supply of labor not only on farms and in processing facilities across the region, but also in agricultural manufacturing businesses, many of them headquartered in the Midwest.
A core issue is that our current immigration system—last overhauled in 1986—is out of sync with our global, 21st century economy. It fails to accommodate the year-round nature of agriculture in the Midwest, particularly on livestock and dairy farms. The H2-A visa, valid for only 10 months, is the only legal avenue for migrants to work in the US agriculture. With few options to legally hire year-round migrant workers, farms often rely on undocumented labor—and both farmers and workers live in constant fear of workplace raids, audits, and deportation.
But the effects of our broken immigration system aren’t just felt on farms. Agribusiness leaders like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Caterpillar, ConAgra, Dow, Deere and Co., and Monsanto—all headquartered in the Midwest—increasingly rely on foreign-born workers to staff their engineering departments and science labs as STEM workers are in short supply in the United States. By 2018, we will face a domestic deficit of 230,000 of these highly-skilled workers, even as antiquated visa systems hinder the recruitment of much-needed talent from other countries.
A fix to the long-broken immigration system continues to elude Congress. Last year’s S.744—the bipartisan Senate bill that included several promising provisions for the agriculture sector—has languished in the House for 17 months. Most recently, President Obama’s executive action, announced November 20, offers only modest benefit for farm workers and may actually exacerbate critical labor shortages at farms across the region. Executive action is at best incomplete—and at worst detrimental—for Midwest agriculture if not carried out in conjunction with deeper legislative reforms.
Employing Agriculture includes a series of policy recommendations—chief among them the creation of a year-round temporary worker visa and provisions for high-skilled agricultural workers, particularly in STEM fields—and a call for the 114th Congress to push forward on this critical issue. While the Midwest has a unique stake in the current immigration debate, what’s good for agriculture in this region is also good for farms across the country.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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