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The Value of Immigrant Labor on American Agriculture and Food Production Systems

Considering food is one of our basic needs, it makes sense that agriculture and food production make up such a vast portion of the U.S. economy. In fact, according to federal government data, food and agriculture account for $1.1 trillion of the country’s gross domestic product and 10.9% of all U.S. employees.

The agriculture and food sectors also account for a massive portion of immigrant employment here in the U.S. One of the worst-kept secrets is that many of these workers are undocumented, forcing them to live in the shadows. Is there anything that we can do to fix that, both for the country and individual workers?

The Agricultural Workforce

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 75% of agriculture workers are foreign-born. Approximately 48% do not hold U.S. citizenship, a green card, or any type of visa. Those workers perform all kinds of functions, including planting, picking, fertilizing, and maintaining livestock. Many also work in food processing facilities, such as slaughterhouses.

Deportation Disrupts American Food Systems

Because so many of these workers are undocumented, they could face deportation at any time – even though they literally work to put food on our tables. Mass deportations could have massive effects on food supply chains, which could then lead to shortages on your neighborhood grocery store shelves.

And even in times of massive unemployment, such as the 2008 financial crash and 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, statistics show that many Americans simply don’t want these jobs.

Developing Opportunities for Legal Agricultural Labor

So, what can we do to help these millions of workers who have no legal protections? Most legal agricultural workers hold what is known as an H-2A visa. This is a temporary visa that allows a person to remain in the U.S. for up to three years. They must then leave the country for at least three months before attempting to return to the U.S. In 2019, the U.S. State Department issued just over 200,000 H-2A visas.

Immigrants who work in food processing and not in agriculture can obtain an H-2B visa, which is also a temporary visa. These visas are capped by law at only 66,000 per year. However, there are many instances where a worker may not count against this cap, and it may be possible to change jobs or extend a stay.

This is where an experienced immigration attorney’s help is so valuable. Until U.S. immigration law changes to deal with the fact that we need millions more legal agriculture and food processing workers, you will likely need an attorney’s help to obtain one of these competitive visas.

An attorney can review your paperwork and help prepare you for any interviews. If you are worried about cost, there are many services available to help immigrants get legal advice at little to no cost.

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