With the run up to the 2016 presidential election, we have seen a growing debate on the need for border security versus the shortage of agriculture workers. Tales of apples rotting on trees and produce left in the field are offered as evidence of jobs Americans won’t do. Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Foreign Labor Certification program, we have a record number of guest worker visa holders. In agriculture alone, the number of H-2A visa holders has risen nearly 35% in the past decade.
Considering the increase of H-2A visa holders, how is it those who grow our food are struggling to bring in their crops? Where are all the workers? Well, according to DOL reports, a majority are harvesting tobacco, working in landscape nurseries, and operating equipment. Annual reports show the tobacco industry is consistently the largest single sector employer of agriculture guest worker visa holders. In fact, a tobacco trade organization, the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), touts itself as the nation’s largest user of the H-2A agricultural “guest worker” program. And, though the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports a steady decline in U.S. smokers, the industry is experiencing a growth in acres planted and yields.
The resurgence comes after an initial dramatic decline in tobacco farming following the implementation of the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004 (FETRA). That legislation ended nearly 70 years of farm subsidies and marketing quotas. Then, beginning with the following year (2005), the feds stepped in with the Tobacco Transition Payment Program (TTPP). A program that paid nearly $9.6 billion to farmers for the lost value of their marketing quotas over a ten-year period. Also, with the low costs guest workers and the benefit of federal export assistance, the industry has gained a world of new consumers through exporting. For those health conscious consumers, tobacco now qualifies for certification under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).
As well, according to a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in 2012, tobacco companies spent $9.6 billion marketing cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in the United States alone. An amount of about $26 million each day, or more than $1 million an hour. Not to mention federal funds at work to assist in identifying medicinal uses for tobacco.
It may appear the relationship between tobacco farming and the government makes no sense, but it actually makes an awful lot of cents. In 2014 alone, federal revenue from tobacco tax amounted to $15.56 billion dollars. Projections through 2020 show an anticipated $157.12 billion into government coffers (no pun intended). American tobacco farming is a windfall tax source for the federal government.
In summary, tens of thousands of agriculture guest workers are designated to work in tobacco while food products go unharvested. The government spends billions to burn food for fuel in its failed ethanol experiment. We have an unprecedented amount of illegal immigration due to a broken system. It goes to show, even a practical program, as is the H-2A visa, government involvement inevitably distorts the original intent.