Economy Politics

While exact statistics are unknown, it’s estimated that about 60 percent of farmworkers in the United States are undocumented immigrants. But amid growing labor shortages in large agricultural states and President Donald Trump’s promise to assemble a “deportation task force,” farmers nationwide have voiced concerns that stricter immigration laws could break the backbone of America’s agricultural economy.

For that reason, proposed legislation called the Agricultural Worker Program Act, now widely referred to as the “Blue Card Act,” has garnered a lot of national media attention of late.

Introduced earlier this month by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the Agricultural Worker Program Act proposes that any farmworker who has worked in the agricultural industry for at least 100 days of each of the past two years would be eligible for a “Blue Card.” Among other things, this could serve as a fast-tracked way to a more permanent status in the U.S.

What would the approval of this bill mean for Kentucky farmers? According to Kentucky agricultural policy-makers — not much, unless the current visa program for farmworkers is also updated.

Keith Rogers, chief of staff for Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, says the state mirrors national statistics with regards to the number of migrant farmworkers.

“If you go to any farm meeting across the state of Kentucky, and you go across commodities — whether corn and soybeans to cattle or poultry — the continuing theme that you will hear in the agricultural industry today is labor,” Rogers says.

Labor, he says, that needs to be done by individuals who are reliable, well-trained and willing to do work that is often dirty, hot and difficult.

“And with that said, the labor force in Kentucky agriculture certainly over the last 10 or 15 years has come more and more to rely on migrant labor,” Rogers says.

Rogers is one of many state Ag reps who supports addressing the existing, undocumented labor force, but he and others aren’t sure the “blue card” is the best place to start.

Addressing Shortcomings

Paul Schlegel is the director of energy and environment with the American Farm Bureau Foundation in Washington, D.C. He points out several issues with the “blue card” proposal. First, he says, is the lack of bipartisan co-sponsorship — all the senators who introduced the legislation are Democrats — which could kill off the bill pretty quickly.

But perhaps more importantly, Schlegel says he feels the bill doesn’t address the root of the problem. According to him, while the “blue card” approach is great for current migrant workers and the farmers who employ them, it doesn’t address the labor force of the future.

“The legislation you mentioned represents a bill that would address one aspect of agriculture labor issues, which is the existing labor force that is present in agriculture that’s not properly documented,” Schlegel says. “And when we’ve worked with legislators and policy-makers, we’ve underscored the importance of addressing this aspect of the problem.”

Schlegel says what farmers need in addition to something like a “blue card” approach is a program that will assure agricultural producers a future flow of “workers that are legal, a program that works effectively, efficiently.”

“H-2A is an existing program, but it doesn’t have those characteristics,” he says, referring to the current visa program for seasonal farm jobs.

Joe Cain of the Kentucky Farm Bureau agrees.

“We welcome the opportunity to try and move legislation or even regulatory reform forward that will help our producers have access to an ample supply of legal farm labor,” Cain says.

But that process, he says, must involve dealing with H-2A’s shortcomings.

“Currently the H-2A program is agriculture’s source of temporary, seasonal labor,” Cain says. “The program is very bureaucratic, complicated, and time-consuming for our producers to navigate.”

Schlegel elaborates on the process: A farmer first has to go to a state workforce agency, advertise a position, and then later establish that he could not find domestic workers to fill it. He then has to give the federal government his date-of-need for workers.

“Then you have to interview the workers, get the workers, the government has to interview them,” Schlegel says, rattling off the steps. “Approve the visas, hope they get to the consulate on time, the consulate has to process them on time, then the workers have to get to your farm on time.”

This isn’t the first time that the timeliness of H2-A has been questioned. According to a 2016 Weekend Edition story — aptly titled “Farmers Wait, And Wait, For Guest Workers Amid H-2A Visa Delays” — the program has fallen behind every year since 2014.

As a result of these delays, farmers have reported losses of up to $300,000 and many fear that they could even lose their farms due to delays in workers arriving.

Less Paperwork?

Some Kentucky lawmakers are keeping an eye on the “blue card” legislation for now.

In an email, a representative for Congressman John Yarmuth, a Democrat, wrote:

It looks like this legislation has not yet been introduced in the House. But it’s certainly something that Congressman Yarmuth would be interested in, as ideas like this were being discussed while he was a member of the Gang of Eight working on bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

Additionally, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked his thoughts on the measure, a representative from his office respond via written statement:

The bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee and I will let you know if the Senator comments on the legislation.

But Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul, has already proposed a one solution: less paperwork.

Kelsey Cooper is the communications director for Paul.

“Sen. Paul introduced the Paperwork Reduction for Farmers Act last year after meeting with farmers across Kentucky to gather their input and then subsequently draft a bill to address the issues with the H-2A program,” says Cooper. “When he introduced the bill last year, we received great positive feedback from Kentucky farmers who believe the Senator’s plan will solve many of the problems they face with retaining current workers.”

The main points of the bill include a streamlined security-check process for returning workers, the option for multi-year contracts, and requirements that the government promptly provide a reason for the denial or delay to the employer, while providing a reasonable time to remedy the problem. These changes would benefit both the farmer and migrant workers.

In an emailed statement, Sen. Paul said:

Wrestling with nature creates enough headaches and unpredictability for Kentucky farmers and others across the country. They don’t need more frustration from unnecessary bureaucratic delays in hiring extra hands. My plan would streamline the H-2A application process, make it easier to retain current workers, and require more government accountability throughout the program.

Cain says he’s heard many Kentucky farmers are pleased with basics of the Paperwork Reduction for Farmers Act; Paul consulted the Kentucky Farm Bureau regarding the bill.

“We worked with him on the language and we’ll work with him moving forward on the language,” Cain says.

The bill will be reintroduced this year with — unlike the “blue card” measure — a bipartisan co-sponsor.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.