Editor's note: Pete Bonds is a rancher and first vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. He operates the Bonds Ranch in Saginaw, Texas, where he also lives.
When I was a kid I worked outside on the ranch from sunup until sundown. When my girls were old enough, they did the same thing. Working right alongside them was a handful of migrant workers who helped us with the hard and physical labor of running a successful cow-calf operation.
These migrant workers weren’t just faceless workers. They were family. They spent their days working to support their families back home, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas they would sit down at the dinner table with the rest of us.
Unfortunately, our current immigration program doesn’t allow these workers to come here legally. Instead most of them travel here illegally, and in doing so they risk their lives to work and ultimately provide for their family. And employers who desperately need a labor force face charges and steep fines if they employee these workers.
This is a problem that must be fixed.
Washington is finally working toward reforming this country’s broken immigration system. I am glad to see that in both chambers of Congress, a true fix to our country’s guest worker program is being considered. However, I worry that the skewed notion that a practical guest worker program implies blanket amnesty might set back any progress.
Let’s be clear, ranchers don’t support blanket amnesty. Amnesty and citizenship should be a separate debate. Let’s also be clear that these workers aren’t taking away American jobs. At our ranch in Falls County – a county with a high unemployment rate—we can’t find U.S. citizens who will do the hard work of ranching. We go through 5 or 10 U.S. employees a year because, when we do find someone, they typically quit within a few weeks. Migrant workers are simply doing the jobs that most Americans refuse to do.
The livestock industry needs a steady, year-round workforce. This is why Texas ranchers support a plan that allows immigrants who want to work in the U.S. an opportunity to do so.
Both the Senate and the House have different ideas on how to accomplish this. The Senate has taken an all or nothing approach to comprehensive immigration reform, and as part of that, has included a guest worker program. The House is biting off the immigration overhaul in small chunks by introducing smaller, stand-alone bills including the Agriculture Guestworker Act, introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia).
I don’t know which approach Congress will take to fix the issue, but I do know that we must have a practical program where willing workers can come to the U.S. on a work visa and stay for at least 3 to 5 years before they’re required to return home. Once they’ve returned home, they should be able to reapply for their visa and return to their job. This provides stability to an industry that simply can’t afford to continuously turn over new employees. A program that allows these folks to work here legally also allows them to be accounted for and take part in the economy by paying taxes.
Border security is crucial to any immigration reform, particularly in Texas. While a practical and effective guest worker program isn’t the single cure to securing our border, it will help reduce the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the border. This relief will allow authorities to focus on controlling people crossing illegally.
Whether Congress reforms our entire immigration program or not, they must come up with an effective fix to help provide Texas ranchers with a reliable workforce. This is the right thing to do for our country and those migrant workers wanting to make a better living for their family.