Immigration reform is critical for the health of agriculture in the Midwest and across the country, according to a report released by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. A continued stalemate on immigration reform means lower food production, higher food costs, economic and job losses in Midwest agriculture, and compromised global competitiveness.

Employing Agriculture: How the Midwest Farm and Food Sector Relies on Immigrant Labor” puts forward recommendations that would help meet the unique, year-round needs of Midwest agriculture, and also address labor shortages, visa issues and other immigration-related challenges on farms across the country.

“In November, President Obama announced long-awaited executive action on immigration policy, but the measure provides at best only minimal benefit to farm workers,” said Michele Wucker, vice president of studies for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “At worst, it may actually worsen critical labor shortages at farms across the region.”

The Midwest relies heavily on the agricultural industry, of which important segments rely on migrant labor. As of 2003, half of the 440 "farm-dependent" counties throughout the United States are within the Midwest region. On average, the percentage of Midwest farms that use hired labor is about one in five farms. Many Midwestern agricultural jobs are in hard-to-access rural areas, making it hard to attract workers, and labor needs for year-round animal care in the region differ from seasonal labor demand in other states.

Midwest agriculture currently employs 57,000 migrant workers across a variety of sectors, including crop production, dairy and livestock care, and food processing and handling. Large Midwest-based agribusinesses also rely on foreign-born engineers, scientists and technicians. Outdated H-1B and H-2A visa systems create labor shortages across all sectors.

“The Midwest has special requirements for reforming the current immigration system, but has been underrepresented in U.S. immigration policy discussions related to agriculture,” said Stephanie Mercier, the report’s author. “With agriculture accounting for 6.6 percent of the region’s economy, about twice the national share, it is crucial for the Midwest to engage in these conversations.”

Using feedback from regional farmers, farm labor organizers, leaders in the agricultural manufacturing sector and other stakeholders, the report recommends the following immigration reform measures to ensure a robust agricultural sector in the Midwest:

  • Introducing year-round temporary worker visa.
  • Eliminating arbitrary caps or quotas.
  • Creating new worker visas before enforcement measures.
  • Developing protections for employers if mandating E-verify.
  • Recognizing that Midwest agriculture needs high-skilled immigrants too.
  • Respecting labor and human rights.

Generous support for this report was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This report builds on previous Chicago Council reports on immigration, including "US Economic Competitiveness at Risk: A Midwest Call to Action on Immigration Reform," a February 2014 survey that found Midwestern business leaders support immigration reform, May 2013 survey that found public impressions of immigration flows are exaggerated, and a December 2012 survey that found informed Midwesterners are more likely to support immigration reform.

This report also builds upon the work of The Chicago Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative. The Global Agricultural Development Initiative aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.