Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (2023)

A bill before the Senate would allow more U.S. farmers to hire immigrant workers year-round.

PLYMOUTH, Indiana — If you buy a gallon a milk at an Indiana Walmart, it likely comes from a cow at Homestead Dairy.

The farm, located two hours north of Indianapolis, is home to about 5,000 dairy cows – and every one of them needs to be milked three times a day. That requires dozens of employees, but finding folks to work on dairy farms has not been easy.

“We have posted in newspapers from South Bend all the way to Rochester saying we need workers, and we didn’t get any,” said Jill Houin, whose family runs the fourth-generation dairy. “Getting people has been difficult over the last few years. If you don’t have workers, you don’t have milk.”

The reality is most Hoosiers don’t want to work on dairy farms, where long days involving very physical work requires a passion for the industry.

That’s why 70% of the staff at Homestead Dairy come from foreign countries. Most of the milkers, veterinarians, mechanical engineers and barn caretakers who keep the dairy running are from Mexico. Houin says based on experience, the staff earn between $48,000 and $90,000 annually, which includes housing.

“These immigrants that are coming over with visas and different things like that allow us to produce the milk,” Houin told 13News. “They are crucial to our business, and they have become part of our family.”

Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (1)Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (2)

Credit: WTHR

Nearly all of the workers who staff the robotic milking parlor at Homestead Dairy in northern Indiana are migrant workers from other countries.

The regulations and immigration laws that allow American farms to bring in foreign workers have been around for decades, and they are very strict, limiting the number of immigrants who fill agriculture jobs and the months they can provide their services.

It means many farms that heavily rely on migrant labor – such as fruit, dairy and poultry farms – struggle to find the staff they need.

That struggle has consequences.

This week, thousands of ripe Macintosh apples rotted on the ground at Earth First Farms, an organic farm located 20 miles north of South Bend, as the farm waited for a crew of migrant workers to arrive to harvest the crop.

“We’re hoping to see them this week,” said owner Tom Rosenfeld. “There just aren’t enough to go around.”

(Video) Indiana farmers say immigration reform key to lowering food costs

“Some of these crops are still very labor intensive, particularly specialty crops, and it is a challenge to find enough labor,” said Bruce Kettler, director of the Indiana Department of Agriculture. “It puts a lot of pressure on farmers and their bottom line.”

Lost product and increased labor costs translate to higher prices at the grocery store.

In the past two years, the cost of milk in Indiana has increased 30%. And without migrant workers, retail milk prices would double, according to Steve Obert, executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers. He said immigrant labor is responsible for milking nearly 80% of cows that supply the nation’s milk.

“We all know about rising food costs, and labor is an important part of that,” Kettler explained. “I hear about it almost every day. Our farmers need help to access more labor.”

Legislation pending in Congress

The help that Kettler and farmers are talking about is federal legislation called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

The bill calls for a major update to the nation’s immigration rules for migrant farm workers and would allow more U.S. farmers to hire immigrant workers year-round. The current system favors seasonal work visas that allow workers to pick specialty crops for several months at a time. Those visas are not much help to Indiana’s dairy and poultry industry because year-round employers cannot use the seasonal worker visa system, known as the H-2A temporary agricultural program.

“Cows milk year-round, 12 months a year,” said Houin. “Immigration reform is so important because we need ways to be able to bring in labor so we can do it properly.”

Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (5)Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (6)

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Jill Houin says 70% of the workers at Homestead Dairy are from foreign countries because she cannot find enough skilled farm workers in Indiana.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the FWMA in early 2021 with bipartisan support. The fate of the bill now rests in the Senate, where votes from Indiana Senators Todd Young and Mike Braun could be crucial.

This summer, Kettler sent a letter to both of Indiana’s U.S. senators, requesting their support for the legislation.

“I firmly believe the Act will go far in securing a stable workforce, while alleviating supply chain issues and rising food prices,” Kettler wrote, adding that passage of the bill would be “transformational” for Indiana dairy and poultry farmers in their efforts to attract enough year-round workers.

Young and Braun have also heard from every major agriculture organization in the state. Leaders from the Indiana Farm Bureau, Indiana Dairy Producers, Indiana Beef Cattle Association, Indiana Vegetable Growers Association, Indiana Corn Growers Association, Indiana Soybean Alliance and Indiana State Poultry Association signed a separate letter to Indiana’s senators, urging them to approve the FWMA.

“We are asking your support … to improve current guest worker laws and help Indiana farmers which are in desperate need of a well-trained, stable workforce,” they wrote. “Now is the time to fix our broken system. Currently, Indiana agriculture is experiencing a magnitude of difficulties staffing our farms. The work of caring for animals, milking cows, picking our fruits and vegetables is increasingly being done by an immigrant workforce. The pandemic has placed a serious strain on our food production system, but it was immigrant workers who proved to be essential by showing up to work every day.”

Behind the scenes, senators have been trying to draft their own version of the FWMA, but finding compromise during a highly-politicized election year might be hard to achieve.

Indiana senators making no promises

Both Indiana senators have been traveling the state and talking with farmers. Both have been tweeting concerns about rising food costs impacting Hoosiers. And both are hesitant to say whether they will vote in favor of immigration reform to help Indiana farmers.

Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (7)Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (8)

Credit: Twitter

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Senator Todd Young’s office told 13News, “Senator Young will review the bill text once it has been introduced in the Senate for consideration, so we’re going to hold off on weighing in for now. Sen. Young has heard from farmers around the state regarding labor shortage concerns, and knows it is top of mind.”

Sen. Braun says he is hearing the same concerns.

“I was talking to a dairy farmer, [who said hiring is] almost impossible. They’ve got some positions they haven’t been able to fill in over a year or so,” the senator told 13News at a meeting with state agriculture leaders. “Ag is coping with the labor shortage more than any other segment of our economy.”

Braun says he is sympathetic to the labor shortage on farms, but he acknowledges the FWMA faces opposition from his conservative Senate colleagues who have concerns about immigration.

“This bill, along with the whole border discussion, immediately gets tied into border security,” Braun said. “I’m going to look at it. Generally, when these bills get ready for a vote, there’s other stuff in it you may not like, but I’m definitely going to be open to it.”

The state’s director of agriculture says lawmakers should not confuse illegal border crossings with a highly-regulated, legal system that attracts skilled foreign workers to American farms.

“There’s a huge difference between illegal immigration versus the legal immigration process,” Kettler said. “In the farm community, what we’re talking about is a legal process that’s already been in place. Farmers want to do things right, and they want to be able to do it legally.”

“This is not amnesty! Improperly documented workers would be required to pay a penalty before receiving a certified ag worker visa,” added Obert, the Indiana Dairy Producers executive director and an Evansville dairy farmer. “For those wanting solutions to border security, this legislation requires e-verify filing of new hires. Ag employers will be doing their part to keep our nation secure and our food supply secure.”

But the bill remains politically charged, largely due to perceptions about immigration. The political divide was evident when House lawmakers approved the FWMA in 2021. At that time, Indiana’s two Democratic representatives both voted in favor of the bill, while six of seven Republican lawmakers voted against it. (Republican Rep. James Baird, whose district covers a large section of farmland in west central Indiana, was the only member of Indiana’s Republican caucus to support the bill.)

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Another hurdle is a provision in the proposed law that would extend protections to more migrant workers under the Migrant and Seasonal Agriculture Workers Protections Act. Some Republican lawmakers worry that allowing migrant workers with seasonal work visas to file lawsuits against employers who violate farm labor laws would lead to frivolous lawsuits.

State agriculture leaders urged Young and Braun to not allow the FWMA to get caught up in politics when they wrote to seek the lawmakers’ support.

“Our organizations fully understand the difficult political nature that immigration reform presents to our elected officials, however, any consideration and support for legislation that offers earned legalization to our current workers and immediate family and gives farm families access to a functional guest worker program going forward would be appreciated,” they wrote.

Farmer pleas continue

A year later, those same leaders continue to advocate for a new farm workforce law. At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Indiana Farm Bureau, the main topic of conversation was the FWMA and its impact on farming and the state’s economy.

“We need to solve this issue for our farmers, but we also need to solve this issue for all of Indiana’s consumers. We hope Senators Young and Braun will lean into their roles as agriculture leaders in the Senate and support the legislation,” said James O’Neill, outreach director at the American Business Immigration Coalition, who said Indiana farms are now experiencing a “devastating” shortage of experienced workers.

Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (11)Indiana farmers' plea to US senators: Pass immigration reform to stabilize farm costs, lower food prices (12)

Credit: WTHR

Homestead Dairy in Plymouth, Indiana, consists of three dairy farms that are home to nearly 5,000 cows. Milk from this dairy is sold at Walmart stores across Indiana and the Midwest.

“This is something we’re seeing all throughout agriculture. Every single subsector within agriculture is facing a labor shortage, and the visa system that currently exists is just insufficient," O’Neill said. "It is just not enough to provide the workers that the agriculture sector needs.”

The shortage is also impacting the restaurant industry, which is also calling on Indiana’s senators to support immigration reform for farm workers.

“If we truly want to grow the Hoosier economy, we have to add people through a legal immigration system. It has to be improved today and not tomorrow, and we have to start having adult conversations. It is not a political conversation. It’s about the economy and it’s about getting people to work and people who desperately want to become American citizens, as well, which is a good thing,” Patrick Tamm, president of the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association, told those attending the roundtable discussion.

FWMA supporters also point to a new study from Texas A&M International University that showed allowing more migrant farm workers to work in the U.S. is associated with lower inflation, lower unemployment and higher average wages.

Without an agreement in the Senate, Houin believes both farmers and consumers will continue to feel the impact.

“Immigration reform is so important in agriculture because … if there aren’t workers to help produce the milk, prices are going to go up,” she said. “We all benefit from having a system that works and having enough workers on our farms.”

Time for a compromise may be running out. If Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on how to update the migrant farm workforce system by the end of the year, they’ll have to start all over again in 2023.

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FAQs

Why was the Immigration Act passed? ›

In all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity. Congress revised the Act in 1952.

How many farm workers in the US are immigrants? ›

Undocumented farm workers make up approximately 50% of the farm labor workforce. Without their hard work, millions of pounds of food would otherwise go unharvested.

When did immigration laws change in the US? ›

In 1986, Congress enacted another major law – the Immigration Reform and Control Act – that granted legalization to millions of unauthorized immigrants, mainly from Latin America, who met certain conditions. The law also imposed sanctions on employers who hired unauthorized immigrants.

When did the U.S. stop allowing immigrants? ›

In the 1920s restrictive immigration quotas were imposed, although political refugees had special status. Numerical restrictions ended in 1965. In recent years the largest numbers have come from Asia and Central America.

Which group of people could freely immigrate to the United States under the Immigration Act of 1924? ›

The act gave 85% of the immigration quota to Northern and Western Europe and those who had an education or had a trade. The other 15% went disproportionately to Eastern and Southern Europe.

Do illegal immigrants pay taxes? ›

Namely, that undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes, or otherwise abuse government safety nets such as Medicaid and Social Security.

Which states have the most migrant farm workers? ›

The total number of farm workers certified to work in the U.S. was 275,430. The H-2A visa program provided 87.4% of the labor needs for farms applying for H-2A visas.
...
Top 20 States with the highest number of certified H-2A farm workers, 2020.
StateNumber of Certified H-2A Workers
FL39,064
GA27,614
WA26,832
CA25,453
16 more rows

Where is most US food produced? ›

In calendar year 2021, the top 10 agriculture-producing States in terms of cash receipts were (in descending order): California, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Indiana, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Which country has the most immigrants? ›

The United States is home to the highest number of immigrants in the world. An estimated 50.6 million people in the United States—a bit more than 15% of the total population of 331.4 million—were born in a foreign country. The number of immigrants in the U.S. has increased by at least 400% since 1965.

How long does it take to become a U.S. citizen? ›

In general, you may qualify for naturalization if you are at least 18 years old and have been a permanent resident for at least 5 years (or 3 years if you are married to a U.S. citizen) and meet all other eligibility requirements.

How many immigrants are allowed in the U.S. each year? ›

The body of law governing U.S. immigration policy is called the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA allows the United States to grant up to 675,000 permanent immigrant visas each year across various visa categories.

Why did Chinese workers first come to America? ›

In the 1850s, Chinese workers migrated to the United States, first to work in the gold mines, but also to take agricultural jobs, and factory work, especially in the garment industry.

Where do most of the immigrants in the United States come from? ›

Origins of the U.S. immigrant population, 1960–2016
19602016
Europe-Canada84%13%
South and East Asia4%27%
Other Latin America4%25%
Mexico6%26%

Why did Germans immigrate to America? ›

They migrated to America for a variety of reasons. Push factors involved worsening opportunities for farm ownership in central Europe, persecution of some religious groups, and military conscription; pull factors were better economic conditions, especially the opportunity to own land, and religious freedom.

Who was the first immigrant to the United States? ›

Thousands of years before Europeans began crossing the vast Atlantic by ship and settling en masse, the first immigrants arrived in North America from Asia. They were Native American ancestors who crossed a narrow spit of land connecting Asia to North America at least 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age.

What were the economic impact of the immigration quotas? ›

For the average affected area, native workers experienced a 2% decline in earnings after the quota system was implemented. This effect, however, substantially differs by race. While the quota system led to substantial earnings losses for native-born white workers, African-American workers benefited from it.

Can states enforce immigration laws? ›

Immigration is the ultimate federal authority and in 2012 the Supreme Court held that the states have no power to enforce the immigration laws themselves.

Do immigrants collect Social Security at 65? ›

In certain cases, individuals who immigrate to the United States when they're age 65 or older may be entitled to draw Social Security benefits, just like any natural-born American citizen. In other cases, immigrants may only draw on their home country's retirement programs.

Do immigrants get Social Security? ›

Under current Social Security rules, workers who have immigrated to the United States are likely to receive lower benefits than natives. Because Social Security requires 40 quarters of covered earnings before an individual is eligible to receive any benefits, many immigrants may not meet eligibility requirements.

Do non citizens pay Social Security tax? ›

Nonresident aliens, in general, are also liable for Social Security/Medicare Taxes on wages paid to them for services performed by them in the United States, with certain exceptions based on their nonimmigrant status.

What ethnicity are farm workers? ›

The most common ethnicity among farm workers is White, which makes up 69.5% of all farm workers. Comparatively, there are 22.9% of the Hispanic or Latino ethnicity and 3.9% of the Black or African American ethnicity.

How many acres can you farm by hand? ›

One person can farm one to three acres by hand. That number varies depending on what you want to grow, what climate you live in, and what tools you have. For example, farming root vegetables by hand in colder temperatures will be more labor-intensive than farming berries during the summer.

How many hours a week does a farmer work? ›

Work Schedules

Most farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers work full time, and many work more than 40 hours per week. Farm work is often seasonal, and the number of hours worked may change according to the season.

Which country has the most food waste? ›

China and India produce more household food waste than any other country worldwide at an estimated 92 million and 69 million metric tons every year, respectively. This is unsurprising, considering both countries have by far the largest populations globally.

What is the best state to live in for farming? ›

State Rankings
OVERALL RANKStateOverall Score
1Montana59.72
2Kansas58.78
3North Dakota57.35
4Texas57.32
42 more rows
3 Oct 2021

Which country has the best soil in the world? ›

Found in Ukraine, parts of Russia and the USA, mollisols are some of the world's most fertile soil. This type of soil includes black soils with high organic content.

What led to the Immigration Act of 1965? ›

The act was pressured by high-ranking officials and interest groups to be passed, which it was passed on October 3, 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 act into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, ending preferences for white immigrants dating to the 18th century.

What did the Immigration Act of 1965 do? ›

The Immigration and Naturalization Act is a federal immigration law. Also known as the Hart-Celler Act, the law eliminated the national origins quota system, which had set limits on the numbers of individuals from any given nation who could immigrate to the United States.

What did the Immigration Act of 1990 do? ›

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the annual limits on the total level of immigration to the United States. For fiscal years 1992 through 1994, the law limited the total number of immigrants to 700,000, to be decreased to 675,000 in fiscal year 1995 and each year thereafter.

What did the Immigration Act of 1921 do? ›

The Emergency Quota Act restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that country living in the United States as of the 1910 Census.

How many legal immigrants came to 1965? ›

Such an extreme policy would have radically changed America's population, economy, and culture. From 1965 to 2016, nearly 40 million immigrants received legal permanent residency in the United States.

How many immigrants came to the US since 1965? ›

All told, in the three decades following passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the United States, more than three times the number admitted over the preceding 30 years.

What did the 1968 Immigration Act do? ›

The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968

The Labour government responded with the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1968. It extended control to those without a parent or grandparent who was born in or was a citizen of the UK.

How long do you have to live in America to get a green card? ›

They must have physically lived in the United States for at least three years since receiving a U visa. They must not have left the United States from the time they applied for a green card until USCIS has approved (or denied) their application.

What did the Immigration Act of 1952 do? ›

The law repealed the last of the existing measures to exclude Asian immigration, allotted each Asian nation a minimum quota of 100 visas each year, and eliminated laws preventing Asians from becoming naturalized American citizens.

Which was one result of the Immigration Act of 1990? ›

The Immigration Act of 1990 helped permit the entry of 20 million people over the next two decades, the largest number recorded in any 20 year period since the nation's founding. seekers could remain in the United States until conditions in their homelands improved.

What did the Immigration Act of 1986 do? ›

Provides for permanent resident adjustment for aliens who: (1) apply during a specified 18-month period; (2) have performed at least 90 man-days of seasonal agricultural work during the 12-month period ending May 1, 1986; and (3) are admissible as immigrants.

What are the 4 types of immigration? ›

In U.S. immigration, there are four main categories of immigration status, including U.S. citizens, permanent or conditional residents, non-immigrants, and undocumented immigrants.

What are the five requirements for becoming a naturalized citizen? ›

Be able to read, write, and speak basic English; Demonstrate good moral character; Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government; Demonstrate a loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution; and.

Who was affected by the Immigration Act of 1924? ›

On this date, the House passed the 1924 Immigration Act—a measure which was a legislative expression of the xenophobia, particularly towards eastern and southern European immigrants, that swept America in the decade of the 1920s.

What was the effect of the Immigration Act of 1917? ›

Although this law is best known for its creation of a “barred zone” extending from the Middle East to Southeast Asia from which no persons were allowed to enter the United States, its main restriction consisted of a literacy test intended to reduce European immigration.

What happened to immigrants in the 1920s? ›

In the 1920s, Congress passed a series of immigration quotas. The quotas were applied on a country-by-country basis and therefore restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe more than immigration from Northern and Western Europe.

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