Opinion

Immigration reform also an important labor issue | Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

Each year on Labor Day, we take time to reflect on the productivity of America’s workers and our responsibility as a nation to support their efforts.

This year, as we gather to celebrate, Congress has a timely opportunity to create an even stronger American workforce for generations to come. They can do so by fixing America’s broken immigration system.

The broad impacts that immigration reform would have for our economy are well documented. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and Social Security Office of the Chief Actuary, the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill would boost our economy by 3.3 percent, reduce the deficit by a projected $850 billion and add nearly $300 billion to our Social Security system by the end of the decade.

But immigration reform would also address critical labor issues. Today’s broken system leaves millions of workers in the shadows – a dangerous situation for these workers and their families – and provides no clarity for U.S. employers, the majority of whom want to do the right thing. At a time when we should be providing rules that empower American productivity, today’s broken immigration system only furthers uncertainty.

This is especially true for agriculture. Farmworkers drive an industry that is directly related to one in 12 American jobs. They’re in the fields as crops are planted, cared for and harvested. They’re in packing houses and processing facilities.  They help get food to markets and stores that ends up on kitchen tables across the country.

About half of these workers are unauthorized, and many more are employed under a temporary worker program that is difficult for farmers and farmworkers alike to understand. In the years to come, the resulting instability in our agricultural workforce threatens productivity on farms and ranches, and impacts rural communities where agriculture is a thriving part of their economies.

The commonsense immigration reform measure passed in June by the U.S. Senate, with bipartisan support, would provide a comprehensive set of rules to ensure a stable and adequate workforce for agriculture. It expands and reforms the temporary worker program to allow a three-year visa for agricultural workers, while enacting a pathway to citizenship for temporary workers who are committed to continue working in agriculture. And it provides a fair opportunity to earn U.S. citizenship for those who are in our country without authorization – a process that will require going to the back of the line, settling taxes and paying fines for those who want to earn citizenship.

The result would be a modern system that makes sense. It would bring millions of farmworkers out of the shadows and give them a fair chance to strive for the American dream. It would help farmers and ranchers focus on growing more and expanding their business. It would give agriculture the people power to keep driving economic growth and creating jobs.

This Labor Day, I’m hopeful that Congress can find a way to solve this modern labor challenge facing our nation. We have a long history in America of supporting those who work hard – and Congress has the chance to make even more progress by passing commonsense immigration reform.

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