August 3, 2016 | By Sara McElmurry

Rural Illinois’ Reason for Reform

Pumpkins harvested at a pumpkin farm. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

Keenes, Illinois is home to 83 people.

Their median age is 60.5. Their per capita income was just $9,034 in 2000. The town’s seven sleepy streets sit at a rural crossroads deep in Southern Illinois, 300 miles south of Chicago and 100 miles east of St. Louis.

On its surface, Keenes seems like yet another aging, fading rural Midwestern community, its glory days gone with the exodus of manufacturing jobs across the region.

But the town has unique claim to fame. Frey Farms, headquartered in Keenes, is the nation’s top producer of pumpkins.

Keenes also holds the No. 1 spot on another related, if unexpected, list. It was the top Illinois city requesting H-2As—visas for temporary agricultural workers—in 2014. This new data was released today by the Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE), which examined the economic impact of immigrants across each of the 50 United States.

If visa requests are a proxy for economic demand for immigrants, then the fact that a town of 83 people led Illinois’ total statewide petitions for 900 foreign-born farm hands demonstrates the extent to which immigration is a lifeline across the rural Midwest.

Nelson (population 164) and Cobden (population 1,135) respectively hold the No. 2 and No. 3 slots on Illinois’ H-2A list, according to PNAE. Foreign-born labor sustains the agricultural industries—pumpkins in Keenes, seed corn in Nelson, and apples in Cobden—that support these towns. 

Immigration in Illinois is largely associated with Chicago. And the state’s agriculture is mostly synonymous with field corn and soybeans. But PNAE data speak to realities that challenge conventional wisdom—and illustrate an urgent call to action around immigration reform for Illinois agriculture.

Smaller-scale, labor-intensive specialty crops, such as pumpkins, are grown on just 100,000 acres of Illinois farmland. In contrast to the mechanization behind large-scale corn and soybean farming, the cultivation of many specialty crops still requires significant physical labor. And as farms face a labor shortage of more than 80,000 workers nationwide, workforce gaps are most acutely felt in places where human hands are still doing the harvesting.

Aging native-born workers in places like Keenes are physically unable to do the job, while younger workers are eschewing agriculture jobs for more lucrative, less stigmatized opportunities in other industries. As a result, immigrants are increasingly behind the food that ends up on America’s dinner tables—and sustains its rural economies.

Illinois’ specialty crops generated more than $390 million in sales in 2010. That’s a significant boon to rural economies in communities like Keenes. Since 2000, the community has seen a $10,000 jump in per capita income (from $9,034 in 2000 to $19,323 in 2013) and a near-tripling of its median home value (from $23,900 in 2000 to $67,170 in 2013). That growth may not all be directly linked back to Frey, but the farm’s expansion to seven states during that same timeframe has certainly boosted economic activity in Keenes and beyond.

Frey’s success depends on its ability to recruit immigrant labor, as indicated by its demand for H-2A visas. Tony Phillips, Frey’s chief operations officer, said that Frey attempts to hire domestic workers whenever possible, but that “without the H-2A program, we’d be at a complete loss on our farm.”

Yet the outdated immigration system makes the hire of foreign-born agricultural workers difficult. A 2014 Chicago Council on Global Affairs report concluded that temporary H-2A fails to meet the need for workers in the Midwest. Those engaged in year-round work, like the region’s dairy and livestock producers, are challenged by the visa’s seasonal nature, and farmers across the region express frustration at the cost, bureaucratic complexities, and limited availability of the visa. In 2012, Midwestern farms sought 7,000 H-2A visas but received only 6,100. Across the country, only ten percent of farm jobs are estimated to be filled through the H-2A program. The shortcomings of the system leaves an estimated 55 percent of farm workers without legal status—and their employers reliant on a workforce that could be deported at any time.

In contrast to labor without legal status, Frey’s overall experience with the H-2A program has been positive, allowing the farm to hire sufficient help and to bring many of the same experienced workers back to Keenes season after season. Even so, Phillips sees ample opportunity to improve the system: “cost is an issue, and there’s a significant amount of red tape that we’d like to see addressed with immigration reform.”

Illinois agriculture also needs foreign-born workers beyond its fields. PNAE also ranked the cities driving Illinois’ 50,000-plus certifications for H-1B visas, which allow businesses to temporarily hire foreign-born professionals in specialty occupations. The top two cities requesting H-1Bs, as expected, were the immigrant gateway of Chicago and its suburban neighbor of Schaumburg. But the No. 3 slot is held by the seemingly unlikely suspect of downstate Bloomington, where H-1B demand is driven in large part by applications from the agribusiness giant Caterpillar, headquartered in nearby Peoria.

Caterpillar executives have significant interest in attracting top global talent for their C-suites and R&D labs, but face similar hurdles in navigating outdated immigration systems. Nationwide demand for H-1B visas has hit record highs for the past two years, and visas are acquired via luck—they’re awarded by lottery—instead of actual need or merit.

Frustrated attempts to bring H-1B talent to Illinois translates to missed opportunities across the state’s economy: PNAE research shows that when a state receives 100 H-1B workers, 183 jobs are created for native-born workers in the seven years that follow. In an immigration system updated to respond to current economic demands, Illinois’ 50,551 certifications for H-1B workers in 2014 could translate into 92,508 new jobs by 2021.

Foreign-born labor is behind the pumpkins grown in Keenes and the parts engineered in Peoria—and almost everything in between. Illinois agriculture’s volume of visa applications is a testament to employers’ growing frustration in finding the workers they need on US soil.  Given the high stakes, it’s no surprise that Illinois’ business community, in a coalition that includes agribusiness leaders and farm groups, has become especially vocal in calling for updates to our outdated immigration system.

As new opportunities for immigration reform loom large in 2017, it is critical that those most familiar with the shortcomings of the system to speak out. The time is now for more voices from Illinois agriculture to join the choir.

The Partnership for New American Economy data series, which includes new data and vignettes that illustrate immigrants’ demographic, income, workforce, tax, and civic contributions is available here. The group has organized a “Reason for Reform” series of events to raise awareness of the need for immigration reform across the country. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct 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.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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