Maine farmers and business leaders urge Congress to expand migrant worker program
Farm owners, immigrant advocates and business leaders in Maine say the state is suffering from an acute shortage of agriculture and food workers. Now, those groups are urging Congress to pass a bill aimed at addressing that labor shortage by allowing more migrant workers into the country — and supporting those already here.
Penny Jordan is one of the owners of Jordan’s Farm, a mixed vegetable operation in Cape Elizabeth. She said her farm has been hit hard by a shortage of seasonal help over the last few years, sometimes relying on as few as three field workers to do the work that should be done by six or seven people.
"I make decisions every single day as to what we will harvest what we have to leave behind. And it's happening more and more," she said.
Jordan said she tried to compensate for the shortage by hiring temporary agricultural workers through the H-2A visa program. But she said she found the program cumbersome and unresponsive.
"And I went back to the H-2A program, they were totally inflexible and did not offer any workers forward," Jordan said.
Jordan was speaking at a press conference on Thursday in Dayton. The event was organized by the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and other groups to draw attention to what they say is a shortage of agriculture workers across Maine and beyond.
James O’Neill, with the American Business Immigration Coalition, said stories like Jordan’s are playing out all over the country.
"We have seen crops rotting in fields, we have seen land go unfarmed, because farmers don't have the labor to do it," he said.
Part of the answer, O’Neill said, is for the Senate to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill passed in the House last year with bipartisan support.
It would expand the H-2A visa program beyond seasonal labor, allowing year-round producers like dairy farms to hire immigrant workers through the program. It also aims to streamline the application process.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said ensuring a steady workforce benefits food producers and consumers.
"It's essential in terms of helping us combat inflation, having our grocery shelves be stocked with groceries that we want, but also lowering prices," he said.
Connors pointed to a study released earlier this year by researchers at Texas A&M International University, that suggested bringing more migrant workers into the country could help lower inflation.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would also create a pathway to citizenship for migrant workers. Juana Rodriguez Vazquez, executive director of Mano en Mano, a migrant worker advocacy group based in Milbridge, said that provision would be especially beneficial to migrant workers in Maine — and acknowledge their contribution to the state.
"We need to create paths to permanent status, and fully welcome immigrants here who are already here and who are coming, contributing each and every day to our communities," Vazquez said.
One group that has expressed opposition to the bill is the American Farm Bureau Federation. It's worried about a provision that would allow H-2A workers to sue U.S. employers. And U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's 2nd District was the only Democrat to vote against it in the House last year. He said it failed to close a loophole that allows Canadian truckers to take unfair advantage of seasonal work visas.
The Senate version of the bill is now before the Judiciary Committee. Spokespeople for U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine said they will evaluate the bill if it makes it out of committee.