Nassif: Ariz. agriculture needs immigration reform to thrive - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Opinion

Nassif: Ariz. agriculture needs immigration reform to thrive

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Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2014 11:30 am | Updated: 6:28 pm, Fri May 23, 2014.

Agriculture is a central pillar of the Arizona economy, but without workable immigration laws that provide growers with a dependable, legal workforce this essential industry faces huge barriers to success. Western Growers Association has stressed the urgent need for immigration policy changes in recent meetings with Arizona Congressional delegation representatives, and will continue to do so in the next several months. It is important to urge our leaders to make fixing our broken immigration system one of their top legislative goals this year.

Agriculture is a $9 billion Arizona industry, a crucial segment of the state economy that supports jobs for thousands of Arizonans, all working to provide nutritious food and fiber to millions of people around the nation and the world. Immigrant workers are a necessity for this important industry, as many farm, ranch, and food processing job openings simply do not attract enough American applicants. Without the hard work of immigrant laborers, Arizona harvests as we know them today would simply be impossible to sustain.

Arizona growers want and need a legal workforce. Undocumented workers can be gone in an instant — victims of an immigration system that gives them no method of complying with the law while still providing for their families. The constant specter of deportation not only negatively impacts the lives of so many immigrant families; it directly hinders investments in training and agricultural production that could significantly increase Arizona — and U.S. — economic output.

Ineffective guest and seasonal worker programs have resulted in a nationwide farm labor shortage. Studies have shown that farm income could drop by as much as $9 billion and thousands of U.S. farms could fail if this situation is not addressed. Failing to act on this critical issue will create negative economic consequences and cause our food production to be controlled by foreign countries.

Reforming our outdated immigration laws is the answer. We must rewrite immigration statutes to provide enough visas to meet the needs of U.S. employers, and devise a method of bringing the millions of undocumented workers living among us out of the shadows and into fully productive participation in our economy.

There are significant benefits to be gained — in all economic sectors — from immigration reform. Analysis conducted by REMI estimates that increasing the availability of visas for temporary or seasonal agricultural workers would create hundreds of new Arizona jobs, and add almost $15 million to wage and salary disbursements in just the first year. By 2020, Arizona workers would receive an additional $55.5 million in wages from instituting this single, simple immigration reform strategy.

Bringing undocumented workers into legality would also boost job creation and economic growth. The first year result from the creation of a pathway to legality would amount to more than 3,200 new jobs and a $265 million increase in Arizona Gross State Product. Six years later, 14,500 jobs would be added and GSP would expand by almost $1.2 billion.

Arizona growers not only put food on our tables, they pay taxes that fund public services and play a key role in maintaining a strong state economy in which other businesses can succeed — every farm job supports three to four good jobs in other industries. Arizona agriculture is a valuable resource we must protect, and reforming our immigration laws to ensure growers of a viable labor force is one of the best ways to help them survive. We applaud the Arizona delegation for meeting with groups like ours, and hope that they will fight for the issues in immigration reform that are important to the agriculture and general business communities of Arizona.

• Tom Nassif is president and CEO of Western Growers.

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