Nine out of 10 American farmers surveyed said they have an unfair burden to ensure the workers they employ are here legally, a process some believe should be better handled by the U.S. government, according to a Reuters poll released on Tuesday.
The agriculture industry has grown increasingly dependent upon immigrant workers—employed at meat packing plants and dairy, fruit and vegetable farms—to help prevent labor shortages. But up to 70 percent of U.S. farm workers are estimated to be undocumented, totaling about 500,000 people.
‘We can check but we can’t be the document police,’ said Rodney Buss, an Illinois tree farmer who suspects many of the agriculture workers in his area near Chicago are in the United States illegally.
Currently, most farmers are required to ask for one or two documents that establish identity and work eligibility within three days after hiring an employee. Farmers cannot question legitimate-looking documents without facing discrimination claims, according to agriculture and industry groups.
Workers ‘should be legal in this country, but why should the farmers make sure they are legal if (the U.S. government is) letting them cross the border?’ said Tom Fisher, an Ohio corn and soybean farmer.
The American Farm Bureau estimates that without a guest-worker program, U.S. agriculture could lose up to $5 billion in revenue annually, including 30 percent of fruit and vegetable production going to foreign growers.
A Reuters survey of 653 farmers at the Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City found that 56 percent supported establishing a non-amnesty/guest worker program. The farmers sampled were responding voluntarily to the straw poll from about 4,800 in attendance at the meeting.
‘If (these workers) all went away tomorrow, everything collapses,’ said Craig Regelbrugge of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. ‘I’m not saying it’s going to be simple by any stretch of the imagination, but the environment has improved to get legislation,’ he added.