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In Kansas and Missouri, Immigrants are Rooted in the Agriculture Workforce Will Immigration Reform Change It?

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Above image credit: Braceros were temporary farmhands brought to the U.S. to fill labor shortages during World War II. The Bracero Program ended in the '60s. (Kansas Historical Society)
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5 minute read

Rows of workers perch on ladders. They hoist hundred-pound baskets, which get heavier with every apple they pluck, around their necks.

That’s the grind 14 hours a day, every day except for Sunday, while they earn maybe $13 an hour

These workers – mostly from Mexico – tend to the apple orchards in Waverly, Missouri. This orchard is just a small bite of the area’s bountiful agricultural industry – ranging from beef, chicken and milk to apples and peaches – that is largely picked, pruned or packed by an immigrant.

“Agriculture is one of those industries that has always had a feeder entry of immigrants,” said Suzanne Gladney, immigration attorney and director of the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund

Gladney has been an immigration attorney for about 40 years and director of the assistance fund for 35 years. Without skilled people doing those jobs, she said, “you’re going to end up with these small farms closing.” 

So, how will the agricultural labor force handle immigration and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) reform? That was Todd Vision’s question for curiousKC

The focus this year has been on labor recruitment and certification of foreign-born temporary workers.

The U.S. Labor Department revised how temporary agricultural worker visas – also known as H-2A visas – are regulated, certified and tracked. That goes into effect on Oct. 21.

The Trump administration has made a concerted effort to curb immigration from Central America, which affects immigrant workers – documented and undocumented – living in the U.S. Most of the workers in Lexington County picking Missouri apples have H-2A visas.

Gladney said she believes that immigration reform is desperately needed to help immigrants and to also help American businesses.

Indeed, the general consensus among farmers, economists, attorneys and health experts is that restricting visas and denying work to immigrant laborers who live in the U.S. would be detrimental for rural farms in Kansas and Missouri.  

Deep-Rooted History

Kansas City-area agribusinesses have relied on immigrant workers since the late 1800s, according to the Kansas City Public Library. Migrant workers continued to fill labor shortages that plagued the U.S. during World War II. Then programs such as the Bracero Program and the H-2A guest worker program – the one still used today – emerged. 

  • Mexican farmhand smiling with box of grapefruits

Rural populations are shrinking, due in part to a dwindling U.S.-born workforce. Factors include an aging rural population, migration to urban areas for school or work, and farm work’s low wages and historically difficult physical labor, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

That’s when foreign-born workers step in. Working in a rural setting is often not only their area of expertise but also the preferred environment.

“Immigration is a phenomenon that is important. It’s how our country grew our labor force,” said Peter Eaton, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “If you take away anyone that doesn’t have immigrant roots, you don’t have much left.” <soundcite: >

In a 2013 study, Eaton tracked immigration’s economic impact in Kansas by looking at the taxes generated and offset that with the cost of education, health care and other costs. Immigration, he concluded, provides a “net fiscal benefit” to Kansas and Missouri. 

Therefore, Eaton concluded, stricter immigration policies would hurt the economy, including agriculture business owners. 

Stabilizing the Market

Farmers nationwide agree. The American Farm Bureau Federation is pushing for immigration reform that would cut the red tape, which includes H-2A, the temporary visa for agricultural workers. The system is taxing both in terms of the cost of money and time for employers who first apply for these visas, then go to Mexico to recruit workers and then aid those folks with their passports and visa processing through the U.S. Consulate. 

It’s a multi-part process. Yet employers are increasingly desperate. Last year the number of visas handed out for temporary agricultural workers hit a record high. This February, the farm bureau said an “uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program” that lets workers apply for positions “at-will” and growers to contract as needed would help stabilize American farms and their workforce.

The United Farm Workers Foundation is sponsoring the Agriculture Worker Program Act of 2019 – also known as the “blue card legislation” – introduced in January by House Rep. Zoe Lofgren, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats.

Temporary workers – such as those with H-2A visas – come for just two to three months at a time, whereas domestic workers who might be undocumented know the lay of the land after years of work. So the Farm Bureau proposed an “adjustment of status for experienced but unauthorized workers,” which was also supported by immigrant advocates, attorneys, farm and agriculture workers and economists. 

Among the workers the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund aids, two-thirds are documented, Gladney said. However, there is a heightened sense of fear that’s only risen in the past several years because of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations. 

“We’re a prime target (for ICE raids) with the meatpacking plants that we have here,” said Jessica Piedra, a Kansas City-based immigration attorney. “They like to get to areas where there’s less resources, less advocates, less attorneys.” 

Some families are mixed-status, meaning there might be one person who is still undocumented while the others are U.S. citizens or have legal immigration status.

Next Steps

Leydy Rangel – who now works at the United Farm Workers Foundation – says plans to provide legal status for undocumented farmworkers in the country are long overdue. Rangel knows first-hand. Her mother and father worked the fields, and so did she.

“(For) my ninth birthday, I remember celebrating in a labor camp,” she said. 

Days in the California labor camps were filled with waiting and worry. If mom didn’t return at 5 p.m., immediate panic ensued. Her family was undocumented. 

Providing a path to citizenship, she said, would bolster the businesses and the employees. Instead of pouring resources into temporary workers who only come for perhaps two to three months, she recommends shifting attention to workers who have toiled in the U.S. and have established their homes here.

“We need to start protecting the labor force … ,” Rangel said. “Giving them a sense of relief is definitely a step to ensuring we continue to have the workforce that has been the backbone of this multi-billion dollar industry.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported the timeline of events when Kendall Riley was detailed at a day program. Initially, we reported the incident this year, but it was in 2019. Second, Kendall has limited verbal skills and is not nonverbal. This article has been updated.


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