Agriculture plays key role in immigration reform talks

Apr 22, 2013

A collective group of farm and ag producers has praised last week’s proposed immigration reform package introduced by the bipartisan group of senators dubbed the “gang of eight.”

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) was put together to serve as a unified voice for agriculture to ensure that America’s farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a stable and secure workforce, something the group says is in jeopardy under the current immigration laws.

According to AWC, “U.S. agriculture faces a critical shortage of workers every year, as citizens are largely unwilling to engage in these rigorous activities and guest worker programs are unable to respond to the marketplace. This situation makes our farms and ranches less competitive with foreign farmers and less reliable for the American consumer. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to agriculture and to the U.S. economy.”

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), which is a founding member of AWC, has made fixing the broken immigration system one of its highest priorities over the past decade. “What we’re working with lawmakers to do is not merely fixing a broken system, but scrapping an old set of unworkable rules and replacing it with something better,” NMPF’s president and CEO, Jerry Kozak, said.

“The approach in this agreement is better for employers, better for employees, better for law enforcement, better for the economy—better for America,” Kozak added.

Kozak identified four key items any eventual deal on immigration reform must contain: 1. Establishing a blue card for experienced agricultural workers. This provides a means for farmers to keep their existing workforce, including those who may not be legally documented. Dairy farmers should not lose experienced, loyal employees as part of this effort. 2. Creating a new visa system for future workers that is easy to use and affordable. Current efforts won’t be worth it if the resulting product is too cumbersome, costly, and confusing for farmers to use. 3. Assuring the future flow of new workers. As the economy and jobs shift and evolve, dairy farmers must have a means to recruit and hire new dairy workers for a long period of time. 4. Eliminating the seasonality element of any ag visa program such as H2A, which prevented U.S. dairy farmers from using it. Dairy farmers need relief from having to demonstrate the seasonal or temporary nature of employment.

Kozak stressed that although much of the work on comprehensive immigration reform has been done, there is still more to do. Negotiations will continue as members of the Senate debate the legislation, and the discussion also begins in the House of Representatives.

“For many farmers across the country, finding a sufficient number of workers to harvest crops or care for animals is the biggest challenge they face in running their businesses. There is a shortage of U.S. workers willing and able to perform farm work. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation’s farms and ranches is essential to ensuring that American consumers continue to enjoy abundant and affordable food on their grocery store shelves,” AWC said in a press release.

The latest immigration reform proposal puts USDA primarily in charge of the guest worker program, including the authority to adjust cap numbers, and would legalize as many as 11 million people.

For the first four years, 112,333 annual agricultural guest worker visas would be released, with adjustment allowed if needed.

In addition to the ag support for the proposal, President Barack Obama also gave it a positive review.

“This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me. But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform.

This bill would continue to strengthen security at our borders and hold employers more accountable if they knowingly hire undocumented workers. It would provide a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million individuals who are already in this country illegally,” Obama’s statement said.

The president also urged the Senate to quickly move the bill forward, saying he was willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Western Growers Association (WG), a member of AWC, said the framework and objectives of this agreement represent a major step toward ensuring that the ag workforce remains stable.

WG President and CEO Tom Nassif, who was part of the negotiation process, said, “The agreement the Ag Workforce Coalition was able to negotiate with the United Farm Workers is a crucial step in solving our immigration crisis and securing a stable and legal workforce in the years to come. Over the past year, the agriculture community was able to come together in a historically broad coalition. The force of agricultural producers and worker representatives coming together on a framework will play a significant role in achieving immigration reform this year.”

In a letter to Congress in February, AWC pointed out some of the problems with the current program.

“The H-2A program’s basic framework is overly restrictive and difficult for an employer to maneuver; however, in recent years it has become even more unworkable and costly to use,” the letter said. “A national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H- 2A employers under the current rules showed that administrative delays have caused an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms.”

American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said the current program is a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

“What we proposed was basically a two-prong program. One was an “at-will” program. That means a worker could come across the border with a legal visa and work wherever he could find work for a designated agricultural employer. So he can move from job to job as work demands dictated. Another part is the contract provisions where a worker can come across, with a proper visa, and then work under a contract much like the H2A program now only the bureaucratic requirements would be much less for the ag employers and would make it much easier for them to use the program. The Farmworkers agreed with us on this approach,” Stallman said in an interview.

“One of their biggest concerns was what do you do with those farmworkers who are already here and who are improperly documented or undocumented. They need to have a status. There’s a separate program called “the blue card” to allow those workers if they have can prove they have worked in agriculture, to continue to work in agriculture for some period of time and then move forward and apply for a green card,” he added.

The proposed bill creates a “blue card status” for farm workers who are now in the country illegally, allowing the workers to become eligible for a permanent resident status for $400. Farm workers who worked at least 100 days on a farm in 2011 or 2012 could get an agricultural working permit, or blue card, that also would give them mobility to move from job to job. After seven years of on-farm work, those blue-card workers could apply to be permanent residents.

While the negotiations have taken a huge step forward, they are not finished. Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, told DTN that the negotiations on the agricultural sections of the immigration bill were tough, but the final terms are balanced for all involved. He noted it is still a long haul to get the bill passed, which will include Senate hearings and debate, and then moving to the House, where the bill is expected to be an even tougher sell.

The Migration Policy Institute compiled a comparison between the 2007 immigration legislation and the 2013, http://www.migrationpolicy. org/. According to the 17-page outline of the new 844-page proposed law, both called for eliminating the diversity visa lottery.

While the bill has a number of similarities, there are some key differences, including the new bill allowing an H1-B visa holder to change jobs after three months. The current terms don’t allow holders to switch employers.

Another key topic in the reform has been border control. The 2007 added 14,000 Border Patrol agents, and 500 Customs and Border Protection inspectors. It called for 200 miles of “vehicle barriers” and 370 miles of fencing. It also called for double and triple fencing near San Diego.

The new bill calls for adding 3,500 Customs officers and an “unspecified number” of Border Patrol agents along the border. It also establishes a “Southern Border Fencing Strategy” six months after the bill takes effect and allocates $1.5 billion toward determining where technological reinforcements are needed. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor