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  • October 21, 2019

    The Impact of the Immigration Debate on Agriculture

    As farmers grapple with international competition, natural disasters, trade wars, and other challenges, they need legal guidance to successfully navigate the many changes to immigration laws and policies that affect them and their workers. Matthew Beier discusses the intersection of farm labor and immigration policies, and the rise in need for legal assistance for immigrants.

    Matthew M. Beier

    Politicians and lawmakers have been posturing and arguing about immigration for decades, causing delay and uncertainty among immigrants, employers, and others.

    Often, the real economic impacts on farmers are overlooked. Wisconsin farmers already face increasing global competition, farm foreclosures, low crop yields from flooding, and an unresolved trade war with China. Add a labor shortage to the list.

    Farms and Labor

    Nationwide, farmers need anywhere from 1.5 million to 2 million hired workers to fill available farm labor jobs. Such jobs are seasonal and are almost always manual labor, which deters some American workers and increases the need for migrant labor. In 2018, a record high of H-2A visas – those used for seasonal farmworkers – were granted. But, a streamlined H-2A program and record number of visas granted still only provide about 4% of the hired workers needed by farmers.

    Matthew Beier Matthew Beier, U.W. 2000, is a claims attorney with Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company (WILMIC), where he provides professional claims services to WILMIC’s insured lawyers.

    In addition, many farmers reported dissatisfaction with the H2-A program because it increases obstacles, including audits, to hiring and maintaining employees. Farmers are often forced to hire lawyers to help them navigate the process. As a result of the shortage of documented laborers and the complexity of the H2-A program, somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent of migrant farm laborers in the country are undocumented.

    In fact, if farmers are no longer able to find enough workers, including the undocumented, it is estimated that agricultural output would decrease by $30 billion to $60 billion.

    In other words, increased immigration enforcement and deportation makes fewer workers available to fill farmers’ labor needs.

    Rise in Need for Legal Assistance for Immigrants

    Immigration has been and will continue to be a political flashpoint – especially as we have entered a new presidential election cycle for 2020.

    As a result of recent and rapid policy changes, there has been a surge of immigrants in need of legal assistance. The immigration court case backlog now exceeds 1 million cases, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks immigration court data. There are approximately 350 immigration judges nationwide in 58 immigration courts.

    Using those numbers, each immigration judge may have a backlog of more than 2,500 cases. The U.S. immigration system is designed to be extremely selective, admitting only those who fit into specific categories. For those who do not “fit” into any of the identified categories, the system is impossible, and they will not be admitted. Moreover, if a mistake – such as a blown deadline or an error in choice of procedures – is made, a person with an otherwise valid case can be forced to start the process over or even be deported.

    It is essential to an immigrant’s success to hire a lawyer to assist in the process. In fact, Natalie Yahr of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism recently found, “that of Wisconsin residents whose cases began between 2010 and 2015, those who had lawyers were more than six times as likely to be allowed to stay in the country as those without. Nearly 55% of those with lawyers were allowed to stay compared to 9% of immigrants without lawyers.”

    A Rising Need for Immigration Attorneys

    The statistics shows that it has never been more important for someone involved in the immigration system to have a lawyer. And, with the greater need, more attorneys are willing to take on new cases and seasoned immigration attorneys are likely to have increased workloads.

    This need presents exciting opportunities for those who are just getting started or who are newer to the practice. It is important to heed SCR 20:1.1 – Competence, which states in part, “Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

    The increase in work available in the area of immigration creates a terrific opportunity for the budding practitioner to establish a network of lawyers and others who can assist in providing competent representation to the many who need it, including Wisconsin farmers.

    Immigration is a growing practice area for lawyers, with a direct impact on the ability of Wisconsin farmers to meet their labor needs. This presents a challenge to the legal community, which it will undoubtedly meet with varying degrees of success.

    One thing is clear, immigrants who have an attorney’s assistance fare far better than those who don’t. As lawyers continue to meet the needs of the immigrant population, it is imperative that they put themselves in the best position possible to be able to competently and diligently assist their clients.

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    Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Blog is published by the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Nancy Trueblood and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2023 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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