Opinion | Put Michigan’s undocumented farmworkers on a path to citizenship

Jim Byrum

Jim Byrum is president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association.

In recent years, Michigan agriculture has faced unprecedented challenges related to trade, tariffs and bad weather.  As the president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, I hear firsthand about the growing concerns impacting our community and fears of increasing challenges threatening the sustainability of Michigan agricultural operations.  Among the top concerns is the industry’s growing labor crisis that is felt by farmers and businesses across the country.

Our industry is critically dependent on millions of workers — a tremendous proportion of whom are immigrants. Here in Michigan, with our huge seasonal surges and ongoing need for workers, we’re particularly dependent on migrant workers. These vital immigrant workers and their families face constant fear and danger of deportation while working hard every day to provide our country with a stable and abundant food supply. They deserve the stability of job security and peace of mind while working in one of the toughest industries in America.

A solution to improving the lives of farmworkers and meeting the needs of the agriculture industry already exists: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bipartisan bill is a compromise that will benefit immigrants working in agriculture and help sustain the labor supply for agricultural businesses necessary for a thriving and growing agricultural economy. If enacted, this bill would put undocumented farmworkers on a path to citizenship and improve the H-2A temporary worker program, resulting in the legalization of about 1 million farm workers and their families. By securing a reliable and skilled workforce, agriculture will be freed from the fear of crops rotting in the fields for a lack of hands to harvest them and of foreign producers exploiting our labor shortage to gain market share.

The bill maps out an earned legalization program, which will first require undocumented immigrants to apply for a Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status and work toward having Legal Permanent Resident status. The compromise bill also maintains many of the existing protections in the current H-2A program, including preserving the Department of Labor’s role as the administrator of the program. 

Furthermore, the bill would institute mandatory E-verify for agricultural employers after the legalization program for undocumented farmworkers has been implemented. The E-verify provisions in the bill address some of the current flaws in the system and strengthen protections against discrimination. 

There is already substantial support for this legislation from many members of Congress from both parties, including Michigan co-sponsors Representatives Fred Upton, Elissa Slotkin and Paul Mitchell. It is critical that our Michigan congressional delegation supports the Farm Workforce Modernization Act as it is considered by the House of Representatives.

When it comes to sustaining our agricultural sector, we need to work across the aisle to ensure that our farmworkers are receiving the support they rightfully deserve. Not only will the bill benefit the agricultural industry and the U.S. economy, but it will also finally provide a path to legal status for the immigrant farm workers who feed America.

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Wed, 12/11/2019 - 9:00am

We should fix the temporary worker program but not include citizenship as part of the fix. Allow all the temporary workers in that business needs, but do not saddle the country with the expense of extra citizens. Yes, the expense of caring for the workers during the seasons when they are not needed. Also, make the companies accountable for where these people are, and make the companies that used the workers responsible for them leaving the country when no longer needed.

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 7:58am

I agree Arjay. Hate to say it, but once they become citizens, they might not want to work in the fields any longer. Look at all the programs available now..

Robert Swicker
Wed, 12/11/2019 - 9:31am

Thank you. I'm seeking more info on this.

Dr Kurt
Wed, 12/11/2019 - 2:30pm

As a physician I support the idea of a "pathway to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants working hard but living in the shadows of society. I'll be interested to see how this issue plays in Republican circles that seem to be staunchly against the words "pathway to citizenship" but also recognize the need to support rural communities and farmers. It is an interesting tension.

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 8:39pm

Why do you want to encourage illegal entry and all those ['coyotes' and such] that feed off of those who are willing to live 'in the shadows'? Why do you simply want to give a path to citizenship for those who start their life in America by breaking the laws of our land? Why not solve the problem that opens the path to entry to America to more then those that are in walking distance, why not create a path for those around the world?

Why no try to solve the problem rather then feed those who are only interested in using it as a ploy for political power? Consider how many issues could have been solved if a group of diverse perspectives came together to solve a problem. If you doubt this, consider if we would have changed the civil union law so all that are suffering because of the current laws, think of those that are widowed/widowers that would like to be able to be married today but don't because of the legal consequences, consider the lose of legal standing of the children from first marriage when their parent remarries, consider those who want legal standing if the person they want to be with but they aren't ready to merge the financial/families assets, etc. And their problems were all ignore because a few people used the issue for political power and we got no change in our marriage laws. By wanting to simply give a pathway to current illegals you are blowing off the concerns of carrying people to feed the political power of a small group. Advocating citizenship for illegals, with no other changes, you are killing any chance for change and taking us down the path we have suffered through time and again for self interest political power plays.

Dr Kurt
Thu, 12/12/2019 - 11:16am

I think people forget that these "illegals" are already living all around us, some of them for decades. Many of them already pay taxes. They show up in our Emergency Rooms and are required to be seen and treated without bias of their ability to pay. They spend money in our stores. They send their kids to schools, etc. More importantly (as this article points out) they provide a valuable work force. I agree we need to avoid encouraging people to stay past their original visas (with is the most common form of being "illegal") or cross the border illegally (happening less and less since the Clinton era) but I feel like we could set some reasonable conditions of what it would take to change their status from "illegal" to "legal." Right now there is a labor shortage. Many companies would LOVE the extra laborers. Maybe they would have to prove they have been a contributing member of society for a number of years and pay a fine due to "breaking the law". Are you open to a compromise on this?

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 8:02pm

My concern is that you presume all who are already here [illegally] should be given citizenship. It is much like we have heard in the past, give them amnesty and we will create new rules ensure no more illegal entries, and yet here we are again. Simply new people saying the same old things, nothing changes. You aren't willing to do anything to change things except give lip service to push aside people's concerns or ideas that would actually change things.
As for what companies want, they deserve nothing different until they are willing to be part of changing things. If anything let them invest in new technology so they don't need to whine about needing more people that will do what others in America want more pay to do.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 12/11/2019 - 9:11pm

You will not find harder working or more family-focused people in our country than immigrant agricultural workers. They are not a burden on us now, and certainly wouldn't be as citizens. They are assets! Without their labor we wouldn't have food on our tables.
Many of them travel the country following the crops as they ripen doing back-breaking work for long hours day after day, then spend the winter at their homes in Florida or Texas.

middle of the mit
Thu, 12/12/2019 - 9:06pm

I can't believe this program will do a whole lot of good or allow many immigrants citizenship.

Why? Most of these jobs that they are taking are seasonal. They work for what, 6 to 8 months and then what? They migrate somewhere else, warmer climates, until they are needed for spring labor.

Since these immigrants don't have citizenship, and their employers CERTAINLY ARE NOT PAYING UNEMPLOYMENT FOR THEM, they need to look for work elsewhere.

Despite Duane telling us this has something to do with marriage laws? What that is, I am still in a conundrum over. I can't fathom what he is talking about.

What I will say is this: If the Patriotic American Employer and Landlords weren't illegals, that is, collecting money from illegals and benefiting from employing illegals, we wouldn't have this "problem". But this "problem" comes from employers wanting cheap labor. And this "problem" is exactly what has led to other employers outsourcing jobs across the oceans to third world hell holes for cheap labor that they don't want to pay Americans a living wage in America to do.

Even though the biggest reason that it costs so much to live in America IS BECAUSE of the profit margin those corporations need to make on a yearly basis to "stay competitive".

Workers don't drive that. Period.

That is shareholders. Where is their productivity level compared to the American worker? Only the American worker is putting more into their company than what they are taking out.

Push back on that.