Farmers call for immigration reform amid workforce woes

Harry Alten remembers his dad hiring migrant farm workers decades ago.

Fast forward more than a half century, and the Harvard farmer has spent his own career utilizing migrant workers – a necessity, he said, to fill his farm's workforce.

"It was difficult for us to get local labor," Alten said. "That filled the void."

Alten is one of many area farmers calling for immigration reforms he said would vastly improve the agricultural community's ability to fill jobs and, in turn, provide for the country's nutritional needs.

Farmers have long had to look outside the area's local employee pool for farmhands. Even during a stingy job market, domestic workers are reluctant to take the inglorious jobs in tough conditions.

Fruit and vegetable operations, large dairy farms, large pork production facilities and seed corn facilities, to name a few, tend to require heavy labor, said Adam Nielsen, director of National Legislation & Policy Development for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

"We have segments of the industry here in the state which are heavily reliant on immigration labor," Nielsen said.

Without reform, experts say the segments will shrink.

Local farmers, like Alten, often turn to migrant workers – who don't necessarily come from outside the country. Some live in southern states during the winter, and on Midwestern farms during the growing months.

But even finding those workers has become more difficult, said Maggie Rivera, who is the national treasurer of the League of United Latin American Citizens and has ties to McHenry County. An older generation of migrant farm workers is retiring, leaving a generation that's interested in finding more permanent employment, Rivera said. This furthers farmers' issues.

"Where they're having issues is they cannot just employ someone to work in the field that is not properly documented," she said. "For them to pass immigration reform, would mean that they have a bigger pool of people to continue that kind of work."

Nielsen would like to see two kinds of reform. First, the farm bureau calls for changes to the seasonal work visa system – currently called the H-2A visa – which farmers say takes too long and is bogged down by loads of paperwork. The program should be run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Labor, Nielsen said.

Second, Nielsen said, the farm bureau wants current undocumented workers to have a chance to "pay a fine" and "come clean."

"Give them an opportunity to come out of the shadows," Nielsen said. "And if they're willing to work in agriculture for a certain amount of time, give them a chance to become eligible to get a green card down the road."

Congress has been slow to act. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez declared immigration reform dead late last month.

Alten called it a lost cause in an election year. He said he's been writing his local representatives.

"I get positive responses, but Congress is just sitting on their hands," said Alten, who stopped employing migrant workers a little more than a decade ago when he scaled back his operation. "They don't do anything."

This week, in an emailed response to the Northwest Herald, U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, said the immigration system has been broken for 17 years. He called for a "step-by-step" approach to reform, starting with securing the border.

Then, he said, the focus should turn to attracting and retaining high-skilled workers. He said those efforts would include a faster visa system.

Hultgren also touched on the undocumented workers already in the U.S.

"While it's not feasible to deport the millions of undocumented immigrants already here, those who are here need to declare themselves and make right by the law," he wrote.

Nielsen said the issue had reached a critical stage, and that inaction from politicians had only compounded the problems.

"The way we look at it is this," Nielsen said. "We're either going to import our labor or we're going to import our food."

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