AFBF president points to challenges advocating for reform

Jan 18, 2013

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition that made a splash last week with its formation and immigration reform proposal has been years in the making.

Despite the need to find consistent, legal workers for farms, it’s been a struggle to get all the various farm groups to come together under one umbrella. Some major agricultural groups also have declined to join. To highlight the issues and personalities involved, the Agriculture Workforce doesn’t have a chairman, or any one agricultural group taking the lead to advocate for the coalition’s proposal.

“We didn’t want anybody heading it,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). “All of the groups that are involved ... We had decided we were going to work as a CEO-level council to work together and discuss the issues we face.”

In an interview at the Farm Bureau annual meeting in Nashville, Stallman said it’s been challenging to find the right balance for a jobs proposal to satisfy the broad array of agricultural needs and deal with the needs of immigrants.

The groups participating in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition aren’t all on the same page, but the goal remains to craft proposals and support legislation that everyone could support. “We’re not completely there yet because there are still some decisions that have to be made about the specifics of a plan,” Stallman said. “We’re sort of in the feeling out, negotiating stage with some members of the Senate, and farm workers are starting to weigh in on our plan.”

Farmers are feeling more pressure to push for reforms as individual states and the federal government are taking tougher actions against employers who are found hiring illegal immigrants.

Under the Agriculture Workforce Coalition proposal, there would be a plan for “at-will” workers who would get visas for up to 11 months with employers registered with USDA. They would be required to return home for 30 days and then could return. There would be no limit for the number of 11-month visas a person can receive.

Contract employers would work for terms up to 12 months and be allowed to stay in the country with renewable visas. They would have to return to their home countries for at least 30 days over a three-year period.

These programs would give workers more freedom to move from job to job, though they would be required to stay in agricultural work. The dual track also would seem to satisfy labor for fruit and vegetable farmers, as well as livestock and dairy producers who need workers on a more permanent basis.

Farm groups have worked to pull together for an immigration proposal as others in Congress see a possible opening for reform as well. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, in an interview this past weekend in the Wall Street Journal, told the newspaper he is preparing legislation to modernize the immigration system. Rubio’s plan would include provisions to provide a legal status for the 11 million or so people who may be in the country illegally.

Groups representing farm workers right now don’t necessarily like what the Agriculture Workforce Coalition has proposed, but Stallman said members of the coalition are trying to get farm workers to meet and talk. “So it’s a process.”

The farm groups that have joined the coalition also all have agreed they could each walk away from the coalition if a proposal or piece of legislation turns into something the individual groups can’t support.

The plan initially offered by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition is different from the longstanding legislative proposal known as AgJobs that has been around at least a decade. Largely championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, AgJobs would provide a legal status for farm workers now in the country illegally, but the legislation never addressed the future flow of workers that would be needed in agriculture.

“AgJobs had no provision for adding workers as you go along,” Stallman said.

In the 1980s when the last major immigration reform occurred, illegal workers had to stay on the same job in agriculture for a certain period of time, and then they could look for other types of employment. Many of those workers, once legal, then left the farm.

AgJobs also tweaked the H2A program. Stallman said most agriculture groups want to eliminate or phase out H2A and replace it with a better program that ensures a larger workforce.

“H2A is broken. It doesn’t work.”

Numbers from different sources reflect some of the challenges that remain in achieving a legal agricultural workforce nationally.

There are about 1 million direct farm workers for crops when factoring in different definitions for agricultural, farm workers and laborers for crops, nurseries and greenhouses. A 2005 National Agricultural Workers Survey by the Department of Labor showed 75 percent of all farm workers were born in Mexico. The study also showed 53 percent of hired crop labor was in the country illegally.

While more than a half-million farm workers may be in the country illegally, the federal government’s H2A guest-worker program shows only 68,000 farm jobs were filled in 2011 by the federal government’s H2A visa program, the last available numbers for the program.

Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups have formed a coalition to work on immigration reform in 2013. The agricultural groups would like to see a guest-worker program to replace the current H2A program. The farm groups are proposing a worker-contract plan to deal with temporary labor and a plan that would deal with longer-term labor such as those workers in areas such as dairy.

“Plus, it would hopefully deal with, it would bring out of the shadows, all of those workers who have been doing very constructive, hard work on farms that their documentation is false, basically—illegally,” Stallman said. “Hopefully, it would allow them to come out and apply for these visas and work legally.”

There is concern that spending a long time on possible immigration reform could further delay the farm bill. Stallman said the debtlimit and budget-cutting debate Congress is ramping up to have in early March also could again create even more divisiveness that the bipartisanship needed for an immigration bill isn’t there. “I hope that’s not the case.”

Additional information on the coalition can be found on its website: www.agwork — Chris Clayton, DTN