When I was about 8, I heard Dorothy tell Toto, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s unfortunate that we frequently need to remind people that times and situations change and we must be prepared for what’s ahead. Bob Dylan summed it up with his lyrics, “The times, they are a changin’.”
For most of our history, American economic growth has been the envy of the world. Natural resources, habitable land, entrepreneurial spirit, energy and innovation seemed boundless. The one resource in short supply from even the earliest settlers was skilled labor. Historically, our economy was fueled by a constant supply of foreign-born labor as early immigrants were fleeing religious and political persecution. They saw America as a land of opportunity, not available under European monarchies. In 1875, the first limitation on immigration was imposed on persons from China and Japan. A variety of changes continued and by 1921, quotas were established to limit the flood of labor from Europeans fleeing the devastation of WWI and the Russian revolution.
However, immigration from Canada and Mexico was open, so many Europeans simply immigrated into the U.S. through Canada and Mexico bypassing quota limitations. They became some of the first “illegal immigrants.” Currently there is much debate on what to do about the millions of undocumented workers in the U.S.
Documentation issues accelerated in 1964 when the Bracero program was cancelled and ended a legal means for U.S. employers and foreign-born workers from Mexico to connect. Today there are two noted ways for foreign-born guest workers to legally enter the country. The federal H2a (agriculture) and H1b (professional) Guest Worker visas provide a legal program for employers to fill some workplace shortages. In southern Idaho, the H2a program accommodates many workers for traditional agricultural needs. However, the H2a limits visas to seasonal labor, which does not match the 24/7/365 needs of the dairy industry.
A new version of the H2a worker visa is needed to address the shortage for our non-seasonal ag labor. We often hear complaints that these foreign workers are taking work from natural-born citizens. Just as history reveals, legal or undocumented immigrants have largely filled the workforce for intensive manual labor requiring long days and nights, which are currently available at hourly rates well above minimum wage.
Here in the Magic Valley, we have many available positions in agriculture. With our unemployment rate at 2.9 percent, there are fewer people looking for work. Guest workers, through a revised H2a visa, can fill those workforce vacancies with documented employees, which is preferable to the alternative.
While the current Guest Worker programs provide some documented workers to our agricultural industry, there needs to be modifications to meet the changing times and the workforce needs of an all-day-year-round industry. Congress must reform the Guest Worker laws to address identifiable workforce shortages and border security.
The discussion of immigration and guest worker programs do stir emotions derived from the same history but not necessarily with the same historical perspective. Before I form my own opinion, I try listen to all sides of an issue and look for solutions. We need to find ways to deal with real challenges and stop the unproductive rhetoric from all sides of the debate. It is time to implement solutions to workforce shortages, including workforce training and guest worker programs. A growing economy is important for Idaho and America.
We are at that point in history to consider the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt, “The best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing.” We have had enough of the wrong thing and doing nothing about it. The times, they have changed.