Bare Knuckles Ag ™

Trump may answer immigration reform critics Monday at AFBF Convention

The merit-based RAISE Act is fraught with problems for agriculture, but Bob Goodlatte’s new H-2C “guest worker” AG Act resolves them!

 President Trump could showcase his “Art of the Deal” on Monday when he addresses the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) annual convention. It’s in Nashville this year. It’s not yet known if he’ll bring up immigration reform; but if he doesn’t and there’s any opportunity at all for Q&A, it will surely come up. That’s because the merit-based “points” system he has been touting; a system embodied in the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, has gotten a stone-cold reception in the ag sector. It’s not hard to see why. Read on!

There are multiple studies showing how RAISE may actually worsen labor shortages in labor-intensive sectors such as horticulture, livestock and dairy operations. In fact, some key Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham warn it would reduce legal immigration by half over the next decade. Other studies indicate RAISE would actually work against the President’s own goals by slowing the rate of growth in the economy as baby boomers retire, birth rates continue to decline and a skilled worker shortage worsens.

This graph by the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts U.S. population growth among citizens and immigrants without regard for whether the immigrants come in legally or illegally.


This next graph shows the same stats if “legal” immigration is capped instead under RAISE:

Folks in agriculture are especially troubled by several elements of Section 5 in RAISE. All applicants under the point system must score at least 30 points under a host of different criteria to even be considered. Then, those scoring 30 points or better will first be prioritized by total points scored. Then, the “sorting process” among those accepted under a fixed annual limit of 140,000 new entry visas will go like this:

  • Those with equal point scores will be prioritized by level of educational achievement, from doctorates scoring 13 points to high school diploma only at 1 point. (Those with diplomas or degrees from U.S. schools rank above those with comparable ones from abroad.)

  • Those with equal points and equal educational achievement will then be prioritized by their English language proficiency scores.

  • Those with equal points, equal education achievement and equal English language skills will finally be prioritized by age, with those closest to age 25 ranked higher than those older or younger than 25.

All three of these prioritizing “sorts” work against the kind of folks needed for labor-intensive work in agriculture that farmers who need them insist U.S. citizens won’t take, even at $12-$13 per hour.

Here’s the element of RAISE that poses the biggest threat to the supply of immigrant farm workers: A criteria called “highly compensated employment” in point scoring. To get any points at all, an applicant must show a job offer paying at least 150% of median household income in the state of employment. That’s worth 5 points. If the job offers 200% of median income, it’s worth 8 points. If it offers 300% of median income, points max out at 13. But here’s the kicker:  Applicants with a bachelor’s degree or less who score no points for job offers meeting the minimum threshold of 150% of median income for that state may not even be placed in the Eligible Applicant Pool!

The top three states for undocumented workers in the farm sector are California, Wisconsin and Idaho. Median income runs $67.7K, $55.6K and $51.6K respectively. Now consider that 150% of these numbers run $101.6K, $83.9K and $77.4K respectively. It’s safe to say VERY few farm help jobs pay anywhere close to those figures. That “highly compensated employment offer” required in RAISE to even be considered for immigration eligibility leaves labor-intensive operations stark choices: Continue to hire illegal workers, replace them with high-tech automation, switch to less labor-intensive enterprises – or sell out.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) offers a hybrid solution: His House Bill 4092, dubbed the Agricultural Guest Worker Act (AG Act) would replace the obsolete and onerous H-2A guest worker program that buries farmers in red tape and a lengthy labor certification process that inevitably puts them at a competitive disadvantage, cost-wise.

The Goodlatte bill offers a new H-2C guest worker program as an alternative to RAISE that does an end-run around the RAISE problems for agriculture. It covers year-round employers like dairies, aquaculture, horticultural operations, food processors and others to allow experienced, but otherwise unauthorized ag workers to accept jobs paying competitive wages for that kind of job and not some arbitrary minimum set at 150% of the state’s median income! And unlike the problematic H-2A or RAISE Act provisions, it will NOT require farmers to:

  • Hire and retrain unneeded guest workers if they find domestic help after arrival.

  • Provide free housing and transportation for guest workers.

  • Pay those unrealistic and uncompetitive wage minimums in the RAISE Act.

Will President Trump be willing to “make a deal” for Ag at AFBF Monday? Will he decide to support both RAISE and the Goodlatte AG Act? He should. It makes total sense; a way for him to “have his cake and eat it, too” as it doesn’t require him to walk back his endorsement of RAISE to placate farm concerns. It offers an “adjunct” reform measure tailored for agriculture needs and meets another frequent Trump goal: CUTTING RED TAPE from the unworkable and outdated H-2A guest worker program!

Dan Manternach

President, Perfect Fit Presentations, LLC

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