Agricultural Labor Market Reform Act: A Step in the Right Direction for American Agriculture

By: Diana Cannino

American agriculture is dependent upon the undocumented workforce for their cheap labor and hard work, especially in light of the fact that about seventy-five percent of agricultural workers are unauthorized immigrants.[1]  Recently, harsh anti-immigrant immigration laws in various states have caused immigrant workers to relocate and have put American agriculture at risk. 

For instance, Georgia’s extremely harsh anti-immigrant immigration law has “scared away migrant workers” and caused huge labor shortages on farms in Georgia[2] and cost Georgia’s economy $391 million.[3]   Governor Deal announced that, instead of using unauthorized immigrant workers, Georgia would to try and recruit probationers to do the work in the fields.”[4]  However, as probationers were unwilling to do the work that the unauthorized immigrants had been doing, the probationer farm-labor program didn’t work, and Georgia is now intending to use prison labor to fill the labor shortage.[5]

Similarly, Alabama is facing its own labor shortage in the wake of harsh immigration laws.[6]  To deal with the shortage, Jerry Spenser, founder of Grow Alabama, which delivers locally grown produce within the state, attempted to recruit unemployed U.S. citizens to do the work by offering to give them free transportation and pay them to pick the fruit and clean the fields.[7] However, after only two weeks, Spenser proclaimed the experiment a failure because only a few of the 50 people recruited to do the work lasted more than two or three days in the program.[8]  This problem is not unique to the Southeast.  In Colorado, John Harold, a corn farmer who wanted to help local workers find work has also found that people just aren’t willing to the do the work that unauthorized workers will.[9] In Washington, Steve Sakuma, who owns and operates a 250 acre strawberry farm, estimates that 80% of his workers are in the U.S. illegally.[10] Like throngs of other farmers nationwide who rely on illegal labor to harvest their crops, Sakuma fears that Congress doesn’t understand the complexities of his operations.[11]

The Agricultural Labor Market Reform Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. Berman (D-CA) on September 22, 2011, attempts to understand the complexities of the agricultural workforce by allowing farm workers who meet certain requirements to work temporarily and earn immigration status.[12] It confers “blue card status” to aliens who meet stringent requirements regarding agricultural work and immigration admissibility.[13]  It contains provisions for termination of blue card status for certain offenses and also provides for an adjustment of status from blue card to legal permanent residence upon further conditions.[14]  Lastly, it provides a trust fund for agricultural reform.[15]  Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice says that “[this Act] would offer a meaningful solution to the needs of agricultural employers, farmworkers and the nation.”[16]  On October 21, 2011 the bill was referred to the Subcommittee for Immigration Policy and Enforcement and currently has seven cosponsors.[17]

[1]  National Immigration Law Center, Legal Workforce Act: Harmful to the Economy and Dangerous for U.S. Workers 3 (September 2011) available at

[2] Jeremy Redmon and Daniel Malloy, Report: Farm Labor Shortage May Cost Georgia Economy $391 Million, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Oct. 4, 2011, 11:04 pm),

[3] Id.

[4] Charlie Harper, Georgia Scours Probation Rolls For Farm Labor; D.C. Begins To Look At Federal Solutions, Peach Pundit (June 15, 2011, 5:00 pm),

[5] Jeremy Redmon, Georgia May Use Prisoners to Fill Farm Labor Gap, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Oct. 5, 2011, 6:12 pm),

[6] Marie Diamond, Alabama Agriculture Department Advances Plan to Replace Immigrant Workers With Prisoners, Thinkprogress (Dec. 6, 2011, 5:10 pm),

[7] Jay Reeves, Efforts to Replace Immigrant Workers in Alabama Fields Coming Up Short, (Oct. 17, 2011, 6:14 pm),

[8] Reeves, supra note 8.

[9] Colorado Corn Farmer Can’t Find U.S. Citizens to Replace Immigrant Labor, Huffington Post (Nov. 2, 2011),

[10] Rob Hotakainen, State Farmers Fear E-Verify Will End Their Livelihoods, Tricity Herald (July 31, 2011),

[11] Id.

[12] Summary of H.R. 3017 – Agricultural Labor Market Reform Act of 2011 in Proposed Federal Legislation, AILA InfoNet (Sept. 28, 2011),

[13] CRS Summary of H.R. 3017, Library of Congress, (last visited February 17, 2012).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Press Release, Farmworker Justice, New Agricultural Labor Market Reform Act Would Stabilize U.S. Farm Work Force, Protect Farmworkers (September 23, 2011) available at

[17] CRS Summary, supra note 13.

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