Protests draw attention to impact of immigrant farmworkers

  • This week, hundreds in Florida protested a new immigration law
  • Critics say it could hurt the state's agricultural industry
  • Immigrants account for the majority of farmworkers in the U.S. 

In this March 24, 2021 photo, farmworkers load a truck with tomatoes harvested at a farm in Delray Beach, Fla. Many U.S. health centers that serve agricultural workers across the nation are receiving COVID-19 vaccine directly from the federal government in a program created by the Biden administration. But in some states, farmworkers are not yet in the priority groups authorized to receive the shots. (AP Photo/Cody Jackson)

(NewsNation) — Hundreds of people across the state of Florida took to the streets this week to protest a sweeping immigration bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The new law, which is intended to crack down on illegal immigration, imposes stricter penalties on those who transport undocumented migrants into the state. It also requires employers with more than 25 workers to use E-Verify — a federal system that confirms a person’s immigration status.

Those provisions, critics say, could decimate the state’s agricultural sector, which heavily relies on foreign-born workers, both authorized and unauthorized, and has struggled to fill positions in recent years.

“Who will harvest the crops we eat every day and that we depend upon for our sustenance?” the Farmworker Association of Florida wrote in a statement shortly after the bill was passed.

But Florida isn’t the only state where immigrants make up the majority of farmworkers.

Just this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to examine the impact of immigrant workers on the nation’s food supply.

During the hearing, Adam Lytch, a regional manager for L&M Farms in Florida, called for federal action to address the labor situation.

“We need Congress to support and seed real change on this issue before it is too late,” Lytch said. “The future of American agriculture, especially the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, depends on it.”

Immigrants and the nation’s food supply

Nationwide, immigrants account for as many as 70% of crop farmworkers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Of those, more than half are not legally authorized to work in the country, the USDA estimates.

That reality has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle calling for changes to the nation’s immigration system, though they continue to disagree on specifics.

“When it comes to securing our nation’s food supply chain, immigration reform is a top priority,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at this week’s hearing. He urged Congress to pass new laws that protect the rights of undocumented farmworkers and offer a path to permanent legal status.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., acknowledged the challenges faced by the agricultural sector but cautioned against legalizing the workforce before securing the southern border.

“You’ll have a run on this country that you’ve never seen,” he said.

In total, the nation’s agriculture industry contributes roughly $1.264 trillion to the U.S. economy. Last year, U.S. farm exports alone hit a record $196 billion.

Farms struggling to find workers

Hiring challenges are nothing new for American farms. From 1950 to 2000, the number of family farmworkers dropped 72% and total hired farmworkers fell 52%, according to the USDA.

Those declines have caused many agricultural employers to become more reliant on temporary immigrant workers who come to the country via the H-2A temporary agriculture program. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of certified guest farmworkers increased more than 220 percent from around 75,000 to more than 250,000.

Over that same time period, the number of firms using the H-2A program more than doubled.

Durbin said those labor challenges have directly contributed to today’s inflation, particularly when it comes to prices at the grocery store.

“Part of the problem is the supply chain itself and the people who are an integral part of it,” he said.

Labor accounts for anywhere between 40% and 50% of the total cost to grow and harvest many crops, Lytch said.

A recent study from pro-immigration lobbying group and George Mason University found that expanding legal immigration channels could help drive down prices.

Another study from the New American Economy — a bipartisan research group — found the farm labor shortage led to more than $3 billion in missed annual GDP growth.

Lytch called for improvements to the H-2A program that he said would increase access and wage stability for farmers while also creating legal pathways for hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers.


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