Editorial: Michigan needs guest workers

The Detroit News

Immigration policies have been a major focus of this election season. But lost in the noise is how critical it is that the U.S. increase its acceptance of guest workers. Crops in Michigan and throughout the country are rotting in the fields this harvest season because the federal government can’t process enough foreign workers to meet the demand from farmers.

Politics must yield to the practical reality that farmers need workers to pick their crops when they’re ready to be picked. They can’t wait on each new president to redefine immigration laws or for a federal bureaucracy to process paperwork at its leisure.

If Americans are unwilling to take the bountiful supply of agricultural jobs, farmers have to be able to bring in enough foreign workers to do the job.

Michigan has increased its participation in the farm labor visa program almost 14-fold over the past five years. This year, 3,800 foreign workers were cleared to travel to the state to work in fields, orchards, and packing houses, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. In 2011, that number was just 276, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The need is there. But crops aren’t being harvested, and in some cases farmers are destroying them because they can’t get harvesters.

The state must apply all the pressure it can on the federal government to increase the efficiency and capability of the H-2A visa program, which feeds the country’s agricultural industry.

There’s a farm labor shortage in 20 other states as well, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The industry group says paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing visa applications.

Even small issues like the use of U.S. mail instead of email slows the processing of workers, which leads to crops that never get harvested. That means losses for the farmers.

The federation also said the Labor Department is failing to comply with regulations that require it to respond to farmers’ requests before new crews are needed.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have said they’re willing to expand the foreign worker visa program to help the agricultural industry.

The candidates also must commit to streamlining the H-2A visa program, which Michigan farmers deem cumbersome, expensive and unreliable.

Agriculture is the third largest industry in Michigan. It depends heavily on seasonal farm workers who come here to harvest the crops and then move on.

It should not be stunted by anti-immigration fervor or by archaic and onerous policies that don’t match simple supply with demand.