Farmers encouraged by Senate work on immigration

Feb 1, 2013

Signs of optimism that Democrats and Republicans can work together appeared last week when eight senators pledged to move much needed immigration legislation through the Senate by summer. Monday’s proposed legislation would provide a possible path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people now in the U.S. illegally.

Along with the citizenship change, the measure would increase border security, allow more temporary workers to stay, and increase fines on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

With farmers across California reporting chronic problems in hiring enough people to tend and harvest crops, the leader of the state’s largest farm organization welcomed news of a bipartisan framework for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. Senate.

“We’re encouraged that our elected officials acknowledge the immigration issues that face the nation and, in particular, farmers and their employees, and that immigration reform will be a priority this year,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. “Farmers struggle to hire enough domestic employees, so they rely on foreign employees willing to harvest America’s food. Many of the people who tend to the food we eat are not properly documented. Reform of immigration laws should secure our borders and allow immigrants who are contributing to our communities to work in farming.

Republican senators backing the plan include John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Democratic senators supporting the package include Chuck Schumer of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Wenger said he is pleased that the plan announced last week includes a pledge to secure the border while crafting a workable immigration program for agriculture. He noted that in an online survey conducted by Farm Bureau last year, California farmers and ranchers described continuing problems in finding enough people to take onfarm jobs.

“Nearly two-thirds of the farmers who responded to our survey described significant problems hiring enough employees,” Wenger said. “We learned that not having a workable immigration program for agricultural employees affects farmers throughout the state and across an array of crops, especially fruits and vegetables. California’s future as the nation’s leading source of nutritious fruits and vegetables relies on a steady workforce and immigration reform is the only solution.”

The plan includes four key pillars, according to a document released by the senators.

•Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required;

•Reform the immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the economy and strengthen families;

•Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers; and

•Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s work force needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.

As a new harvest season begins, Wenger said, it’s important for Congress to work on a solution sooner rather than later. He added that the California Farm Bureau, as part of the newly formed Agriculture Workforce Coalition and as a partner in the American Farm Bureau Federation, is focused on enacting reform this year.

“It’s important that any agricultural immigration program provide the flexibility needed for the large variety of fruits, vegetables, crops and livestock grown by American farmers,” Wenger said. “What we’ve seen from the bipartisan group of senators reflects movement in the right direction for reform, and Congress must keep moving forward.”

Immigrant workers have long played a role in U.S. agriculture, and most ag groups support reform that allows this to continue.

“We will continue to work through the Agriculture Workforce Coalition in our efforts to ensure that America’s farmers, growers and livestock producers have long-term access to a steady supply of skilled agricultural workers. We think the best way to do this is through a modern agriculture worker visa program. We will continue to work with members of Congress and the Obama administration to ensure any resulting program is fair, flexible and works to help us feed our growing nation. We also support efforts that would allow experienced laborers the opportunity to earn an enhanced status for the roles they have played in helping us keep our farms running and American agriculture strong. Both elements are critical to an agricultural immigration reform package,” Bob Stallman, president, American Farm Bureau Federation, said.

“Immigrant laborers play a vital role in tending our crops and livestock, and we are encouraged by the bipartisan reform efforts. American agriculture needs a legal and stable workforce and farmers from across our nation are ready to support a solution that reaches that conclusion.”

President Barack Obama gave his support of the immigration overhaul last Tuesday, saying “now’s the time” to replace a system he said is “out of date and badly broken.” But in the same address, Obama discussed his own plans for immigration, which included a quicker path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S.

While most remain optimistic that 2013 is the year of immigration reform, others say it’s just another repeat of the 1986 immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan. That legislation led to citizenship for about 2.7 million illegal immigrants. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor