Skip Navigation
Regional News
H2A workers on a North Country Farm. Photo: David Sommerstein
H2A workers on a North Country Farm. Photo: David Sommerstein

Will immigration reform ease NY's farm labor shortage?

Listen to this story
As lawmakers in Washington debate the immigration reform bill released last month, farmers in New York State are hoping to find enough workers to fully staff their operations.

The Senate Judiciary Committee spent a day last week amending the 844-page bill, legislation that includes changes to guest worker programs. The changes may be good news for New York farmers.

Hear this

Download audio

Share this

Explore this

Reported by

Matt Richmond
Reporter, The Innovation Trail

It's a yearly struggle in New York and nationwide and according to a report by Farm Credit East, more than 1000 farms in New York could close or shrink by two-thirds if immigration laws were fully enforced.

The H-2A visa program

Anyone looking to hire foreign workers for the planting and harvesting seasons can go through the Department of Labor's H-2A guest worker visa program. But it is often a source of frustration for farmers.

“The current H-2A guestworker program is a nightmare for many farmers in New York and nationally," says the farm credit cooperative's vice president Bob Smith.

Smith says the program is too expensive, applicants have to pay for the workers’ travel to and from the farm and provide housing. And the Department of Labor, which approves requests for farm workers, often responds late to applications.

“Many times, farms have gotten workers after their harvesting period or after their planting period and that cost farmers collectively millions and millions of dollars each year,” says Smith

In 2011, about 4,000 guest worker visas were issued to farm laborers coming to New York, about 7% of the total full time and seasonal positions on New York farms.

Immigration reform

“We have lots of illegal immigrants who are doing the work now although they’re chased by INS, ICE, the immigration service, particularly in New York because we have a border with Canada,” says New York Sen. Charles Schumer.

Schumer is a member of the Group of Eight, the four Democratic and four Republican senators behind immigration reform legislation. The bill is facing stiff opposition in the Senate, and has yet to go to the Republican-controlled House.

Under the Group of Eight bill, farm workers in the country illegally since 2011 would be offered legal status. And a new guest worker program would be created to supply all agriculture with new laborers.

The bill includes legalization provisions for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States without U.S. identity papers, and a separate path for children whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally.

The new guest worker visa would last three years. That means farmers would not have to reapply every year, oftentimes just to be able to bring the same workers back. And the guest workers would be able to take jobs on other farms with the same visa, something the current system doesn’t allow.

“And so this is kind of a basic right – the right to move, the right to leave one’s workplace,” says Leanne Tory-Murphy of the Workers Justice Center of New York.

Rights for farm workers

Murphy says the current system of guest workers and migrants without official identity papers has turned farm work into a job that Americans don’t want.

“You can see other industries that are equally dangerous, equally dirty, equally hard, like mining for example, which is still a mostly American workforce because it’s unionized, there are protections, the pay is much better,” says Murphy.

For both undocumented workers and their employers, there’s always the threat of a crackdown by immigration.

Employers check their workers’ status with the same I-9 form that every new hire has to fill out. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, audits of I-9 forms by immigration authorities have jumped from just 3 in 2004 to 3,000 last year.

Jim Allen is head of the New York Apple Growers Association. He says immigration officials are a constant threat to his members’ employees.

“In the past, they’ve staked out laundromats, they’ve staked out child care, they’ve sat in front of the Catholic Church on Saturday night,” says Allen.

Allen says his industry, where every apple is picked by hand, relies on migrant labor and targeting them isn’t helping anyone.

“They’re very diligent, they’re very conscientious, they work very hard, they work circles around anybody else. And they pay taxes, by the way,” says Allen.

Allen says apple growers are expecting a bumper crop this year, after a bad year last year. And, like always, they’re wondering if they’ll be able to find enough workers.

Reporting by the Innovation Trail is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Visit

Visitor comments


NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.