In the fertile lands of central California lies the Salinas Valley, where 369,000 acres of land provide the country with $8.1 billion worth of fruits and vegetables annually. Nicknamed “The Salad Bowl of the World,” the area is one of the biggest producers of lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries – among others – in the United States and helps fulfill the country’s massive demand for fresh food, especially in today’s health-conscious landscape.
For all the talk of California’s water crisis and the impact the drought is having on agricultural production, immigration is an equally critical issue that is affecting the output of fruits and vegetables from this lush land.
With a sizable increase in American produce consumption, the agriculture industry is finding it hard to keep up with the demand. According to a study by The Chicago Council of Global Affairs, the consumption of fresh produce in the United States increased by 10.5 percent from 2000 to 2012, while domestic production increased by only 1.4 percent. The result is a heavier reliance on imported produce, leaving the domestic economy with billions in lost income.
In order to ramp up production, farms need more workers to plant, harvest and process produce. These labor-intensive aspects of agriculture employ the largest number of workers in the industry, and approximately 78 percent of this population consists of foreign-born workers, overwhelmingly from Mexico.
But as immigration reform remains stalled in Congress, and debate rages on in the presidential campaign, the agriculture industry can’t afford to wait for help. And the promise of help is bleak.
With complicated government immigration programs and opposition from a majority of Congress, the industry leaders in the area are instead taking it upon themselves to introduce new means of attracting and retaining foreign workers.
Tanimura & Antle (T&A) was recently approved to construct an affordable housing project near their headquarters that will be able to support up to 800 migrant workers. The company is one of the largest in the area, with nearly 30,000 acres of farmland and upwards of $675 million in annual revenue. County officials unanimously approved the project, despite opposition from the small town that will surround the complex.
“We’re still a little short on labor, but we’re in a lot better shape than last year,” said Gary Tanimura, executive vice president of production for T&A.
Permanent worker housing allows T&A to work around the complex process to acquire seasonal agricultural work visas, otherwise known as the H-2A program, which deters many immigrants from finding work because of the long bureaucratic procedures associated with it. 2015 was the first year that T&A did not have a wait list for this program. Government inaction to simplify the process ensures that the difficulty will continue.
“After we got all the permits and started building the houses, we got feedback from workers and we realized we don’t have to have H-2A workers,” said Tanimura. “Since we have housing here we were able to attract more people that historically didn’t fall in the circuit.” The circuit Tanimura is referring to is the seasonal rotation of farmers on the H-2 system.
Other companies in the area are planning similar projects, according to Tanimura, but it is a long, difficult and layered process. Employers must receive approval from planning departments, the board of supervisors, local government and finally the vote of the people. T&A has a unique situation where their farmland and housing project share the same property as the company headquarters, which made it easier to begin building.
In the long run, permanent housing may prove to be more cost effective when compared to the H-2A program. As it stands now, H-2A requires employers to provide free housing, meals and transportation from workers’ native countries. On the other hand, with affordable housing for permanent workers, employers can collect rent and workers can use more of their wages for things like food, or to send back to their families.
“I have a labor camp in Arizona that I pay $150,000 a year for, and people don’t even use it,” said Dennis Caprara, owner and manager of R.C. Farms in Salinas. “They go back across the border to live with relatives or their own house, but I have to have it because it’s a government regulation.”
Caprara owns and manages land throughout California and Arizona, and supplies vegetables to businesses like Dole Food Company, which is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. He finds the H-2A program arduous and overly complicated.
“Our representatives have to make it easier for us. They’ve got to do some kind of reforming for that program,” said Caprara. “Right now there’s people with crops that have been lost because there’s not enough people to pick the crops.”
Caprara suggests a compromise between permanent worker residency and the H-2A program, similar to the Bracero program. The Bracero program was a series of laws and agreements with the Mexican government and was the precursor to H-2. It guaranteed basic human rights and a respectable minimum wage to migrant workers who came to the United States during the labor shortage that stemmed from World War II. Before it ended in 1964, it sponsored around 4.6 million labor contracts for Mexican workers.
The program was more flexible for hiring qualifications, while also discouraging welfare and unemployment abuse, according to Caprara. H-2A encourages illegal immigration, and taxpayers are footing the bill for health care, welfare and education for these undocumented workers, he added. Workers are also staying out-of-season, further driving up costs.
“That’s the kind of program that’s got to be done. That’s what wrecked the state of California when they did away with (the Bracero program),” said Caprara.
With stubborn Congressional partisanship and a new president set to be elected, it could be a long time before this vicious cycle sees any improvement
In the meantime, other efforts to combat the labor shortage are being developed. T&A recently acquired Plant Tape, a system that reduces the number of workers needed for harvesting from 15 to three, while also greatly reducing the number of seedlings that would normally be “thinned out” to make room for larger, healthier seeds. The system is set for commercial production by early 2017.
But even with these technology advancements, manual labor remains the driver of agriculture production. It is paramount to enable more opportunities for workers in order to keep the industry flowing.
“We need the people,” said Caprara. “A lot of people are against reform because back in the Midwest, they have grains, corn belts, soybeans – and they use machines for all that stuff. People don’t realize that the Salinas Valley or Arizona have the vegetables, the grapes, the strawberries that have to be done by hand.”
Should immigration reform become stricter, look no further than Arizona’s controversial SB1070 legislation, passed in 2010, to see the potential effects.
After the passage of the act, which imposed ultra-strict laws regarding possession of immigration documents and even harsher penalties, Arizona lost approximately 200,000 immigrants and experienced a net loss of $1 billion in tax revenue.
Proponents of the act argued that native-born job seekers at low skill levels received more opportunities and higher wages, especially in an agriculture-heavy economy like Arizona where jobs are plentiful.
And yet, only 10 percent of jobs previously held by immigrants were filled, with total employment in Arizona decreasing by 2.5 percent annually after 2010 (Moody’s Analytics, University of Arizona).
This sobering statistic is a representation of the dire need for immigrants in the industry and the economy. H-2A requires employers to prove they have exhausted the local unemployed population, but it seems native-born Americans are mostly averse to taking these thankless, menial jobs.
“We had H-2A in Texas a few years ago, and they took all the people that were unemployed and kind of shoved it to us to do our onions in the field,” said Tanimura. “We went through about 1500 employees, but shoot, all these guys would only work about one or two days, ‘Oh, this is too hard, I can’t do it, I quit,’ so you have this horrendous turnover that costs us money and on top of that we don’t get the job done.”
Improving technology and permanent worker housing can only go so far to alleviate this problem. It is up to the government to mitigate the labor crisis.
“The fields are always looking for workers, and immigrants have proved to provide hard, honest work,” said Trace Hart, a field scout with Crop Production Services in Salinas. “Even with advancements in technology there will always be a demand for labor.”
President Barack Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Order is a starting point for streamlining legal immigration. The order, which was introduced in late 2014, created two programs (an expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA) aimed at granting quasi-legal status and work permits to nearly 5 million immigrants who illegally entered the country, of which up to 400,000 are workers in the agriculture sector.
But these actions remain in limbo to this day. After the announcement of the order, a federal judge blocked the programs nationwide after Texas and 19 other states sued the Obama administration for failing to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. The Supreme Court case reviewing the legality of the actions is still ongoing.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post that Obama’s executive order will help the industry, but “it still isn’t what is necessary,” adding that the lack of Congressional action on immigration reform is “unbelievable.”
“Congress needs to act,” said Vilsack. “If we’re to maximize the ability of the U.S. to produce food, we’re going to have to have immigration reform.
“Comprehensive immigration reform will reduce the budget deficit, will shore up the Social Security system, will provide border security and will meet the needs of many industries,” said Vilsack. “It is unbelievable to me that Congress cannot find the will or the way to get this done. It’s an outrage.”
Further troubling to the agriculture industry is the strength and influence of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a 250,000-member organization that “seeks a moratorium on net immigration by anyone other than refugees and the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, until it can be shown that higher immigration levels are needed.” This same organization also advocates against mass guest-worker programs and whose legal expert helped write the aforementioned SB1070 act.
While the principles laid out by FAIR advocate stabilizing the population and aiding native workers, many supporters of strict immigration laws argue that national security should be considered in immigration reform, citing high violent crime rates of illegal immigrants and a global uneasiness about terrorism.
And yet, more numbers and statistics refute that idea. USA Today found that there is no evidence supporting higher crime rates of illegal immigrants compared to the rest of the population. This argument appears even more flawed when considering the experiences of those working in the fields.
“I see great communication and camaraderie between natives and immigrants because of how tough the work is and how tough everyone works,” said Hart. “Everyone I’ve seen has given them (immigrants) the respect and recognition they deserve.”
Anecdotal evidence can only go so far, but considering that crime and violence are a quick way to get deported from the country, immigrants who come to the United States looking for a better life are generally not looking to stir up conflict.
“These people came here looking for a stable job so they can provide a better life for themselves and their family,” said Hart. “They wouldn’t throw away that opportunity.”
As such, the clear and continuing detrimental effects to the economy that have arisen from current immigration laws seem to indicate that immigration reform has become a cultural issue rather than an economic one.
“Historically, the people who come here are usually low-class people and the upper-class always looked down upon them,” said Tanimura. “Unfortunately, there’s still that prejudice out there, I believe.”
Perhaps reform of the unemployment and welfare programs in conjunction with new immigration policies should be a more intense area of focus to help solve the labor shortage and improve the public’s perception of immigrants.
“The general people out here are tired of seeing all these people getting food stamps and getting everything for nothing,” said Caprara. “That’s what the taxpayers are mad about, and you can’t blame them. If you’re out here paying taxes, and your tax money is going to feed these people, unemployment, this and that, then they’re blaming the Mexican people. But it’s the government’s own fault for not screening the people who really need it.
“There are people that know the system and work it to get more unemployment money. There are too many lazy people who don’t want to work. My old guys are working and they’re in their 50s and 60s now. But the new generation, they don’t want to do this kind of work.”
This problem is not localized to immigrant workers either. Tanimura described it as a fallacy where “there are all these people that are unemployed, but realistically the way the system has worked, they’d just rather stay home and collect welfare.”
T&A has spearheaded the effort to end the labor crisis, mainly because they know the importance of these workers and the impact they have on their business. The Tanimuras are intimately intertwined with the topic of immigration, as the family can trace its roots to Japanese immigrants who sailed to California in the early 20th century. The dedication and hard work of co-founder George Tanimura helped make the company the leader it is today.
Without immigration reform, companies like Tanimura & Antle or R.C. Farms will struggle to meet labor needs, and in turn struggle to meet the American consumer demand for fresh produce. The longer this debate goes on, the more uncertain the agriculture industry becomes about their future. Companies cannot extend jobs to their largest source of workers, production is hampered, expansion is curtailed and billions of dollars that help the domestic economy are lost to foreign markets.
And thousands of hard-working immigrants are denied the opportunity to provide a better life for themselves and their families.
Whoever is elected president in the 2016 election needs to address this problem with a sense of urgency, as it is too important to ignore. Without the help of migrant workers, the salad bar may start to look a little sparse by the time the polls open again in 2020.