Agriculture leaders emphasize need for immigration reform

By Marc Smith
The news was not good, and there are very real economic consequences for farmers and workers of the broken immigration policy, stressed speakers at the 2011 Becker Forum Jan. 25, which opened the three-day Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo in Syracuse.
Nearly 140 fruit and vegetable growers, dairy farmers, worker advocates and service providers, bankers and government officials braved wintry conditions to hear nationally known speakers discuss the long, winding history of immigration reform, the current enforcement and regulatory climate, and the outlook for policy changes in the foreseeable future.
Charles Foster, an immigration lawyer and policy adviser to both Bush administrations and President Barack Obama, noted the bleak congressional environment for reform but urged farm and business leaders to «speak up and take back the terms of the debate by making the case that the only meaningful border security is meaningful immigration reform.»
At the forum, farm business leaders from throughout New York state, representing the state’s diverse, largely labor-intensive agricultural sector, expressed uncertainty as well as determination to find resolution to the immigration issue in conversations outside the conference room. Dutchess County farmer Norman Greig ’75, for example, said that he sees the failure to enact realistic reforms, such as a workable guest worker program, leading to serious problems for consumers. «The unintended consequence is that instead of harvesting our domestic produce, we as a nation are deciding to become ever more dependent on imported produce,» he said. «This decision makes our food supply less safe and secure, and creates an impossible situation for the producers of local food.»
As immigrant workers have become increasingly valuable to New York’s dairy farm businesses, more dairy farm leaders have been joining their fruit and vegetable business counterparts at the Becker Forums. Western New York dairy farmer Sarah Noble-Moag ’80, for example, acknowledged acute frustration with failed efforts to improve immigration policy. «Our business is about treating people fairly, day in and day out,» she said. «We care for their safety and health, their families, and their quality of life. At the Becker Forum every year we are able to share best practices with farms like ours from across the Northeast. Year after year I come away with workable action steps for us to start implementing in our own business the very next day.»
Added Bob Smith, senior vice president at Farm Credit East: «With the numerous changes we have seen in the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, it is important that producers have an opportunity to discuss these changes with experts. The Becker Forum allows this interaction.»
Max Pfeffer, associate dean of the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), said in his remarks that Cornell has a stake in the debates to come. «CALS strives to promote informed discussion backed up with sound and objective research, and immigration and farm labor is a topic that demands such discussion.» Indeed, its importance was highlighted later that night when immigration was addressed in Obama’s State of the Union address.
The Becker Forum is sponsored by Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the Cornell Farmworker Program, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York State Horticultural Society.
Marc Smith is assistant director at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva and an extension associate in the Dyson School.