Agriculture is essential to Pennsylvania – to our economy, our rural and urban communities, our history, and our future. Farm work is tough, with long hours and extreme conditions. During the coronavirus pandemic, this work only picked up as farmers and ranchers were deemed essential to ensure the U.S. food supply chain wouldn’t collapse. Even though going to work meant significant risks to their health, farmers and farm workers showed up each day to support their families and sustain our food supply.
Now it’s time for Congress to show up for our agricultural community. Farmers and farmworkers face overwhelming challenges of labor shortages and the threat of deportation. These challenges can and must be addressed through two straightforward steps to ensure that our agricultural industry and community are on solid ground: passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the Dream Act.
Currently, 73% of agricultural workers are immigrants. This includes many undocumented farmworkers and farmworkers with visas through H-2A, a program that allows farmers to employ skilled workers from other countries for a certain timeframe. However beneficial the contributions of immigrant farmworkers are, Congress has failed to modernize the immigration system that supports these contributions, leaving us with an outdated system that doesn’t meet our industry’s current labor demands and leaves a significant portion of our agricultural community at peril of being separated from their families and livelihoods.
That’s why the Senate must send the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to the President’s desk as soon as possible – certainly before the fall harvest season. The U.S. House already has approved the legislation with bipartisan support, including from Pennsylvania’s own Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01), Glenn Thompson (R-PA-15), and Lloyd Smucker (R-PA-11). Now it is up to the Senate to bring it up for a vote and provide certainty for essential agriculture workers that is well-deserved.
You can’t talk about agriculture and the future of young farmers without talking about immigration and labor. The National Young Farmers Coalition’s mission of building a brighter, more just future for agriculture is not possible unless immigrants, farmworkers, and food systems workers are supported to transition to farm ownership and other agricultural roles that will make our agricultural system resilient and diversified. More farmworkers with citizenship mean more farmworkers that can become farm owners and can revitalize agriculture as a large population of farmers retire and transition their farms.
Therefore, while the Farm Workforce Modernization Act will help alleviate some of the inefficiencies of our current H-2A visa program, it cannot address farmer attrition and labor shortages alone. Congress must pass the bipartisan Dream Act, which also has a counterpart in the U.S. House which passed with bipartisan support to help recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. There are more than 17,000 DACA recipients living in Pennsylvania, who were brought here as kids and have the chance to work or go to school thanks to the DACA program. If DACA is eliminated without an alternative in place, these young adults would lose their ability to work and our state stands to lose more than $320 million from our GDP. This outcome would be devastating for our state’s economy and communities.
In Pennsylvania and across the nation farmers and farmworkers are working long hours, in all weather, to put food on their tables and ours. The U.S. Senate must act to support them. The Dream Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act face Senate obstacles that require Republican leadership, including from Pennsylvania’s own Sen. Toomey, to progress through the legislative process and onto the President’s desk.
Congressional inaction on immigration reform has gone on long enough – the time for action is now.
Vanessa Garcia Polanco, Karen Gardner and Adrienne Nelson are Federal Policy Director, Pennsylvania Manager and Western Pennsylvania Organizer, respectively, for the National Young Farmers Coalition.