Agriculture Secretary Ross backs immigration changes

Benefits seen for economy, treatment of farm workers

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

Just
The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — In its efforts to promote immigration reform, the White House is focusing on the economic benefits to agriculture and to the individual states.

The effort, which has the support of the state’s highest agriculture official, also has the potential to enhance the lives of migrant workers who face exploitation and often work for low wages.

Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross supports the White House analysis, stating, “This data illustrates how Commonsense Immigration Reform benefits not just the agricultural sector, but also provide a boost to the Vermont’s overall economy.”

The immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate includes both a path to citizenship for undocumented workers currently in the U.S., albeit a lengthy one, and an expansion of the H-2A visa program under which workers can come to the U.S. to do seasonal work.

The White House argues the combined changes would “boost Vermont’s economic output by $51 million and create approximately 732 new jobs in 2014. By 2045, the boost to Vermont’s economic output would be around $436 million, in 2012 dollars.”

Immigration reform would increase both income and the taxes paid on that income, the White House argued. According to the administration’s analysis, immigration reform would increase personal income in Vermont by $49 million in 2020.

In a report released last week, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture argued that growth in the agricultural sector is being hampered by a lack of labor. Between 2007 and 2009, 71 percent of agricultural workers had been born outside the U.S. Many of them had entered the country illegally.

If those same workers are able to acquire legal status either through an expansion of agricultural visas or a path to citizenship for those already here, their productivity would increase, the USDA argued.

Legal status would not only improve the workers’ quality of life, it would allow them access to education to improve their skills and learn English, the USDA argued.

It would also increase their wages. A 1986 study found that legal status would increase wages by 10 percent. A more recent analysis determined wages for legalized agricultural workers could increase as much as $1,800 per person.

Legal status would also protect workers from abuse, the USDA claimed. “Legalization would also alleviate farmworkers from the high risk of exploitative treatment – including wage theft and poor and unsafe working conditions – that comes with a lack of legal status,” the report states.

However, critics of the H-2A visa program, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have found that there is abuse in the system currently, with workers losing their legal status if they attempt to change employers. Workers under the visa program thus have few options if their employer is abusive.

Traditionally, the H-2A visa program has only been open to seasonal workers. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., added a provision to the bill making dairy farms eligible to recruit workers through the H2A program.

USDA economists found that an increase in the number of H-2A visas of 156,000 over 15 years would increase both the output and exports from the country’s agricultural sector. Dairy would see a 4.6 percent increase in exports, according to the analysis.

“Guest workers play an important role in Vermont’s agricultural economy,” said Ross. “Today, farmers looking to employ guest workers are dealing with a broken system. It’s time to address this issue at and make real, meaningful improvements.”

The standard view of immigration is that immigrants compete with U.S. workers for jobs.

Citing recent research, the USDA suggests that low-skilled immigrants may provide English-speaking workers with few skills an opportunity to move into positions requiring English language skills and thus earn higher wages.

“Higher immigration increases U.S. workers’ productivity by contributing to technological advancement, leading to higher average wages,” the report states. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate will increase real wages for all wages by 0.5 percent in 2033, adding an additional $250 in income for the typical household.

By raising wages for the lowest paid, workers immigration reform will drive up wages for all workers, the USDA argued.

Overall, immigration reform is estimated to add $2 billion to the economy in 2014 and $9.79 billion in 2045.