WASHINGTON, April 22 The United States will
become more reliant than ever on imported food if it does not
pass immigration reforms to assure there are enough workers to
harvest fruit and vegetable crops and milk cows, a farm
coalition told senators on Monday.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition pointed to estimates
that thousands of U.S. farms could go out of business, slashing
farm income by as much as $9 billion a year without an adequate
Some 60 to 70 percent of the estimated 2 million hired
workers on U.S. farms are undocumented laborers. Growers say
they are unable to hire enough American workers or guest workers
from overseas to perform what is often back-breaking work.
"Production will move offshore," Charles Conner, co-chair of
the workforce coalition, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee
hearing on border security. "We do have crops going
Conner said California has lost about 80,000 acres of land
formerly devoted to fruit and vegetable production because of
labor shortages. Those goods are now imported.
Fruit and vegetable imports are forecast by the Agriculture
Department at $24.6 billion this fiscal year, compared with
exports of $14 billion.
Farms with immigrant workers produced about 60 percent of
the U.S. milk supply, Conner added.
Under the immigration bill pending in the Senate, illegal
farm workers would be granted legal status, a so-called blue
card, and could apply after five years for permanent U.S.
residency. A new guest worker program would allow visas for up
to 112,333 workers a year to work on U.S. farms and ranches.
Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said the ready
supply of undocumented workers drove down wage rates and
displaced U.S. workers.
Several other Judiciary Committee members spoke favorably of
"They (Americans) are not doing the job," said Alyson
Eastman, who runs Book-Ends Associates, a company in Orwell,
Vermont, that helps farmers hire foreign workers for seasonal
work. She said the Labor Department, in charge of the current
H-2A guest worker program, is slow to provide workers and sets
wages too high.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Ros Krasny and Dan