September 2, 2014

USDA boss pushes for immigration reform

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

Nebraska has the fourth largest agricultural economy in the country, but U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the ag industries in the state and nation will suffer if Congress fails to enact some sort of immigration reform.

“If you know what I know about the impact of the immigrant workforce on agriculture, you recognize that this is something that needs to get done,” Vilsack says. “We have had crops not harvested, crops not raised and crops actually leaving the United States and being grown elsewhere because we have a broken immigration system.”

Vilsack says America’s ag industry has kept food prices low, in part, with cheap immigrant labor. A recent survey found 77% of all agricultural workers in the U-S were born in another country.

Vilsack cites a recent study in the state of Georgia.

“They’ve determined that their state has suffered $320 million annually of economic loss and roughly 3200 jobs that otherwise would have been filled weren’t being filled,” Vilsack says. “So if you start multiplying that by a lot of agricultural states around the country, you can see this lack of a comprehensive immigration bill is having an impact on the agricultural economy.”

Georgia enacted a state law in 2010 that made it harder for employers to hire illegal immigrants and directed police in Georgia to be more aggressive in checking for undocumented residents.

A University of Georgia study found farmers in Georgia were 40% short of the fieldhands they needed to harvest crops in 2012.

The immigration reform plan that recently cleared the U.S. Senate would grant legal resident status to current farm workers who entered the country illegally.

Advocates say a separate guest worker program outlined in the bill will increase the flow of temporary farm workers into the U.S.

Nebraska has about 47,200 farms, encompassing 45.6-million acres of farmland. The state ranks 3rd in the U.S. in corn and cattle, 4th in soybeans and 6th in hogs.