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Economy needs immigration reform

It’s a rare issue that brings together Washington’s agricultural industry, immigration rights groups, business associations, faith organizations and politicians from both sides of the aisle.

After years of hard work by many organizations and individuals in the state and elsewhere, the U.S. Senate passed a bi-partisan immigration reform bill that promises to benefit Washington’s agriculture, its economy and many people living and working here. We are so close to achieving this long-sought goal that we can’t let this opportunity fail.

Washington’s $46 billion food and agriculture industry employs approximately 160,000 people and contributes 13 percent of the state’s economy.

Rural economies are fueled by agricultural workers who shop in their local communities. Processing, packaging, transportation and export of the products grown mean jobs throughout the state.

Our agriculture, especially the fruit and dairy industries, is labor intensive. Immigrant workers make up a significant portion of this labor force. In 2011, Washington had over 900,000 immigrants, almost one and a half times the population of Seattle. Not all work in agriculture, but those that do can mean the difference between whether a crop adds to our economy or rots in a field.

Washington producers have been short workers in recent years. About $80 million of Washington’s apple crop was left unpicked last fall. The worker shortage left other fruit and vegetables unharvested.

When the U.S. Senate passed a commonsense immigration reform measure in a strongly bipartisan fashion, it was an important step in the right direction – especially for producers, farm workers and rural communities.

The historic legislation passed by the Senate provides a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million people who are in our country today without authorization. They will have to go to the back of the line, pay fines and settle taxes they owe our nation.

It would modernize the system that we use to bring skilled workers into the United States. And it would put in place the toughest border security plan that America has ever seen – building on steps that have reduced illegal border crossings to their lowest level in decades.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that the Senate bill would reduce the deficit over the next 20 years by nearly $850 billion, and the Social Security Administration estimates that this immigration bill would add nearly $300 billion to the Social Security system in the next decade.

A recent report from the White House economic team highlights research showing that without a stable workforce, America’s agricultural productivity will decline in coming years. In Washington, for example, eliminating the immigrant labor force would cost more than $327.8 million — $590 million in short-term agricultural losses.

The Senate bill addresses this concern by taking much-needed steps to ensure a stable agricultural workforce and a fair system for U.S. producers and farm workers. It would give qualifying farm workers an expedited path to earned citizenship, as long as they continue to work in agriculture. A new temporary worker program would replace the current H-2A visa program over time, and allow farm workers a three-year visa to work year-round in any agricultural job.

This commonsense system wouldn’t just prevent a decline in production – it would grow the economy.

Research highlighted in the White House report projects that an expanded temporary worker program would increase both production and exports across our agriculture sector.

Immigration reform is very important for farmers, farm workers and communities across Washington and America. The majority of our agriculture workforce is made up of immigrants, and their hard work has helped America’s farmers and ranchers lead the world.

To remain competitive and keep driving economic growth in rural America, we need rules that work. Rural America needs Congress to act as soon as possible to carry forward the work of the U.S. Senate and fix today’s broken immigration system.

Judy Olson is the state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Email her at judy.olson@wa.usda.gov.

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