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Worker shortage leads Maine farmers to pressure Feds for migrant worker reform

The U.S. House passed a bill in 2021 aimed at streamlining the visa process for agriculture workers.

DAYTON, MAINE, Maine — At Pierson Nursery in Dayton, everything must work in concert. A labyrinth of pipes and hoses feeds a sprinkler system, blanketing a diverse variety of trees and flowers across some of the 140-acre property.

Its complex drainage and pond system allowed the farm to sustain itself through a recent drought that has parched southern Maine.

For owner Jake Pierson, his workforce must be in sync as well.

Pierson said he employs the same six men on H-2A visas from Jamaica each year. On Thursday, he was happy to host a meeting of farming leaders who are all pushing for Congressional action on the immigration and visa processes specific to agriculture.

The U.S. House of Representatives already passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which aims to streamline the process for so-called “certified agricultural workers” who come from other countries to earn temporary visa status in the U.S.

Multigeneration Maine farmers spoke about how migrant workers have been critical to Maine's farms, including Penny Jordan of Jordan's Farm in Cape Elizabeth. She wanted Congress to make it easier for these workers to live and work in Maine legally.

"We can no longer be in denial that undocumented workers are the backbone and the workforce in agriculture in the United States," Jordan said. "And this bill seeks to create a fair and equitable system."

James O’Neill from the American Business Immigration Coalition believes where decades of immigration bills have stalled in DC, the one now sitting in the Senate is passable because it’s specific.

"It silos out the agriculture sector," he explained. "We’re trying to fix immigration for one sector of the economy and a foundational sector of the economy. And that gives us a better shot of building the coalition that we need to get the votes in the Senate."

In addition to normal congressional challenges, Pierson said, they need to break down stereotypes that migrant workers are taking jobs from Americans.

"Two things right now that point to that not being true is, unemployment’s very, very low. It’s one of the lowest it’s been, ever," he said. "And, any entity — any business entity and farm — that brings in H-2A workers, we have to prove that we are not able to hire locally." 

According to the Maine Department of Labor, the state's unemployment rate dropped to 2.8 percent in July, nearly reaching the record low of 2.6 percent set from April through June of 2019.

The House bill passed in March 2021. The farmers hoped the Senate would make it a priority this session.

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