How Will Immigration Reform Impact Florida Agriculture?

Mar 12, 2013

Credit USDA

A bipartisan group of United States senators, including Florida Republican Marco Rubio, is working to pass immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship.  A similar effort is underway in the U.S House.  But, what are the implications for Florida agriculture, which is extremely dependent on foreign labor? 

Most of the citrus grown in U.S. is from Florida.  The state is also major producer of strawberries and tomatoes. Those crops must be harvested by hand.  It’s called stoop labor.   And it’s next to impossible to recruit citizens for this work.  Congressman Tom Rooney, who sits on the Agriculture Committee and whose district includes a large swath of Florida’s citrus growing region thinks immigration reform must include a more viable way for  harvesters to work legally,  but not as citizens. 

“The problem is these guys get into the country and they’re afraid to go back to Mexico or Guatemala or wherever because they’re not afraid they may not be able to get back,” he said.  “So, if they knew they get back in relatively easy under this new program – whatever it’s going to be – I think we’d see more people going home at the end of the season.”

The state’s largest citrus grower’s organization, Florida Citrus Mutual, reports nearly 50 percent of harvesters are here under the federal H2A program.  But CEO Mike Sparks says it’s cumbersome and costly to implement.  Other harvesters fill out  I-9 forms,  which require several forms of ID,  but those ID’s can be faked.   Sparks was recently in Washington lobbying for a reworked program  that he maintains  would benefit growers and workers. The devil is in the details.

“If you’re talking about a worker at will, can you imagine if you’re not under contract and we get into those later months in May and June and other opportunities arise and the worker walks away and you still have ten percent left in your groves? That’s your profit,” he said.  “All of these details need to be addressed in the new program.”

Meanwhile, with the impact of sequestration dominating the political landscape, immigration reform has taken a back seat.