How farms cope with a closed border

Cienega farms in Mescal Arizona at sunset on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Cienega is an alpaca farm, with a number of animals from llamas to donkeys. (Steven Spooner/ Arizona Sonoran News Service)

With winter lettuce season starting in November, farms and the agriculture industry are rushing to find workers for harvest. A difficult task, made more difficult with the anti-immigration rhetoric coming from the current administration.

For Arizona, the stakes are high, especially for the Yuma area, where roughly 90 percent of national lettuce and leafy greens are produced in winter.

With the immigrant labor supply already drying up in the United States, farm operators have had to turn to controversial H2-A visas to import and employ temporary agriculture workers. A program that, as it stands, is not popular.

“The farmworkers, especially H2-A guest workers, generally don’t have any bargaining power to demand a better wage,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit migrant worker rights group based in Washington D.C. “If they want to come back in a following year, they have to hope the employer will invite them back and request a visa for them.”

In Arizona alone, farms had requested 5,706 workers as of June for in-state work. Of those applications, 5,676 were approved.

The criticism doesn’t end with groups representing temporary workers. Farm owners and businesses are also at odds with the program. They complain about limits, or caps, to how many people they can hire, and the restrictions on how they use that labor.

“Other than the fact that the process is arduous, the caps and the way the whole process works and the way everything is defined, I’m not kidding when I say the program is designed not to work,” said John Boelts, elected member of the Arizona Farm bureau and owner of Desert Premium Farms in Yuma.

Despite its resentment from farms and farmworker activists, the program has more than doubled since 2011, and has no signs of slowing down. The latest quarter report of H2-A visas saw a 19.7 percent increase in certifications from last year during the same period in Arizona.

That’s not so surprising, considering farms have no other legal option to bring in labor, according to Julie Murphy, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau.

“It’s the only thing we have,” Murphy said. “That’s the only advantage we see to it. It has not been a program that has worked well for our industry.”

The reason temporary workers are needed in the first place is because citizens don’t want the jobs, according to the Arizona Farm Bureau. The first step in the application process is proving to the Department of Labor that operators can’t find legal residents to fill the jobs.

“To fill a thousand openings and up those five or six or maybe it’s 10 people, and I’m not exaggerating,” Boelts said. “I defy you to find more than one in 10,000 that will actually do the job and stick with it.”

Working 10- to 12-hour days in the Arizona heat doing manual labor is a hard sell to young Americans. Especially for only $10.95 an hour. The advantage many immigrant workers have is that each dollar earned in the U.S. buys more goods in their home country.

Proving a labor shortage to the Department of Labor is only the first step in the process. The major shortfalls of the program come from the process involving several different state and federal agencies.

Next, the farm has to submit an application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. From there, operators have to work with the State Department and a consulate in the country that they are requesting workers from. Finally, they must set up housing for workers and have it inspected by the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

The maze of red tape in the process does not mix well with the time-sensitive nature of agriculture work, especially seasonal harvesting.

“It’s very administratively bulky; it takes a very long time,” Murphy said. “On average, workers are getting to the fields they need to be in 20 days — 14 days after the need’s actually there.”

The question that comes to mind is why don’t farms simply submit their applications earlier? According to Murphy, while there is a date set on when farms can apply, the real issue comes from workers simply not being brought into the country on time due to the program’s complicated nature.

While advocates for farms and farm labor hold a mutual distrust in the H2-A system, they still both stand on opposite sides of the debate about what to do.

The Arizona Farm Bureau suggested a more “market-based” approach, which would likely allow temporary workers to fill the demand for labor by eliminating the lengthy application process and caps on the amount of labor that could be imported. However, without federal oversight, there is concern that wages will plummet.

On the other side of the debate, Goldstein pointed out the potential problems with wages. The Arizona minimum wage for temporary farmers is $10.95 an hour, and farms can reject any domestic or foreign workers wanting a higher wage.

Normally the employer has to raise the pay rate to encourage workers, until the demand is met.

This isn’t only a concern in Arizona. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, submitted a draft of a bill to the House that would create an H2-C visa program run through the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Labor, which immigration experts worry could reflect only operators’ interests.

“You brought these folks here. They want to work. You want them to work for you,” Boelts said. “But the bureaucrats won’t let them do it because of a technicality in either how the law is written or how they’re applying it.”

Steven Spooner is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News Service, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at

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