by Howard Stephenson


One of the chief concerns cited in the illegal immigration debate is that of our country’s national security.  Many people correctly assess that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee a nation’s security with borders as expansive and as porous as those surrounding the continental United States.  Hence, the threat of a terrorist entering our nation through our northern or southern border is a legitimate concern according to many government officials and national security experts.  A resolution to this extremely problematic aspect of the national security dilemma is understandably complicated, debatable and not easily solved.
Border Security vs. Food Supply Security?
There is, however, another emerging and serious illegal immigration-related national security threat in addition to the border issue that could be solved if the federal government would simply act on it by repairing our nation’s broken immigration laws.  It is a situation that is putting America in a tremendously vulnerable position, yet it is rarely discussed.  This growing threat is that of our country’s food security, a quandary that according to those in the agriculture business is more ominous and more hazardous than most in our country would guess.
The problem boils down to this:  the agriculture sector in our country is more dependent on migrant and seasonal labor than all the other sectors in the U.S. economy.  As written in a Utah Farm Bureau Study from February 2006 the, “U.S. agriculture’s demand for labor has stabilized at around three million workers.  About two million of those workers are drawn from farm and ranch family members while another one million are hired laborers.”   Despite the obvious implications described in this study, the federal government has not enacted laws consistent with this need for immigrant labor; instead it has forced employers in agri-business, as it has with employers in other segments of the economy, to rely on an immigration system that functions contrarily to employers needs and which ultimately and implicitly relies on illegal immigration.  This reliance on an obsolete and irrelevant immigration system has led the U.S. Department of Labor to concede that as much as one-half of our country’s farm and ranch family’s hired labor are not authorized to work in the U.S.
Why the dilemma described above becomes a problem of national security is this:  The universal concern cited in interviews performed by the authors of this article with Utah’s agriculture business leaders, and in public announcements made by agri-businesses themselves such as U.S. Apple and the Utah Farm Bureau, is that if the current immigration status quo does not change then American producers will lose competitiveness against other nations’ producers.  The dire consequence of an inability of American producers to compete with foreign producers is that American grocers will solely stock foreign produce.  When American grocers’ stock solely foreign produce, then American consumers are forced to solely buy foreign produce, ultimately leaving Americans in the detrimental scenario of relying on foreign producers to supply our produce needs.
To put the situation in the sentiments of Robert McMullin of McMullin Orchards in Payson, Utah, “If we want food, then we [the agribusiness employers] need an agriculture program in our nation’s immigration policy.  If we don’t get the workers we need at the time we need them, then there will be no food.  Therefore, we need access to a labor supply; either that or we start importing our food.”
The problems with relying on foreign-grown produce are three-fold:  First, as maintained by the Utah Farm Bureau, it would result in “billions of dollars currently kept in the United States being sent overseas;” Second, other countries do not always produce food at the same level of health and safety standards as we do in the United States; And finally, relying on foreign producers to produce food for Americans puts the country in a very precarious situation.  Utah Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer and Secretary-Treasurer, Randy Parker argued, “An oil embargo brought our country to its knees.  What other commodity is a step ahead of that?  Food.“  It is simply an unwise policy for America to rely on other countries for her produce needs, and yet, with no significant changes to the immigration debacle in sight, that is exactly the direction that this country is headed.  Shockingly, Parker confirmed that for the last few years, America has imported more food than it exported for the first time in our recent history.  It is for these reasons that Leland Hogan, President of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation affirmed, “This should be considered more than an agriculture problem, it is a matter of U.S. security.”
What is occurring to cause American producers to lose competitiveness and, in consequence, cause a national security threat to our food supply?  It is our nation’s immigration structure.  For a very long time, many U.S. farmers and ranchers relied on immigrant labor to do their seasonal and temporary work without complaint from the federal government.  It was just the way things were done.  Now, with the illegal immigration issue a far more salient issue to Americans since 9/11, the federal government has repeatedly promised, but failed to produce, immigration reform.  This inaction on the part of the government is beginning to severely hurt our nation’s producers as they desperately need legal workers to perform seasonal labor, but are not able to find them.
For instance, one agri-business owner in Utah candidly explained that prior to last year’s crop, his company put out several help wanted ads in local papers and schools that announced temporary job openings for the upcoming harvest.  To his dismay, only three members of the local community applied for jobs with his company, dismally short of the multiple dozens of workers he needed for the harvest.  Unfortunately, this specific man was not alone in his extreme shortage of willing American workers.  Many employers in Utah and throughout America in the agriculture business reported very similar, very distressing circumstances of an inadequate amount of a local workforce.
A sufficient supply of legal guest workers is essential
If there is not enough of a local workforce to labor in America’s fields, and if the federal government does not provide a way for a sufficient number of legal immigrants to come as guest workers to work on our farms and ranches, then America’s agriculture business owners have two options: They can either hire on individuals in this country illegally, or let the work go undone.  Both options have been used by American agri-business employers; neither option is a good option for our country.
The employers who hire on immigrants in this country illegally instigate, perhaps unknowingly, other problems such as the massive identity theft crisis explained in last week’s immigration article. But, because these employers have a workforce, albeit an illegal workforce, the necessary labor gets done to provide American consumers their food.   This is more than can be said about employers who are forced to leave crops rotting in the field because they couldn’t find enough people to legally work for them, as was the case two years ago with some of Utah’s apple and cherry growers.
It isn’t just the growers who are struggling with this disturbing issue either.  Mr. Parker related that many of Utah’s dairy farmers are experiencing similar difficulties in hiring enough legal workers as well.  He stated that some dairy farmers are currently reducing the number of cows they own to meet their low employee numbers, rather than increasing cow numbers based on demand for milk.  There is absolutely no excuse for the federal government to be the cause of American’s needlessly reducing their production output due to a lack of labor as is the case with these dairy farmers and growers.
Congress should act now
It is time that the federal government repaired our nation’s broken immigration system.  There is no reason for American producers to lose competitiveness with producers abroad thereby diminishing our nation’s food security, merely because the federal government refuses to act on this issue.  In Randy Parker’s words, “This represents a failure on behalf of the federal government to live up to their responsibility.  We have a system that is broken, yet they won’t deal with it.  The government has a responsibility to both protect us and meet our labor needs, but they are doing neither.”  It is time that we all demand better from our federal government.  It is time that they lived up to their responsibility on the immigration issue.