Senate immigration reform debates heating up

Jun 24, 2013

Dozens of farm workers and immigration reform advocates demonstrated in front of U.S. Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s office on June 18 in hopes of persuading McCarthy to oppose the Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 1773), which was filed by Rep. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, in April.

The effort, led by the United Farm Workers (UFW), was one of many in recent weeks to draw attention back to a much needed immigration reform bill. But UFW says this act misses the main points.

“Goodlatte’s bill does not include a new immigration process allowing farm workers who feed our nation to legalize their status and earn permanent legal residence over time. In poll after poll, American voters, especially Latinos, have overwhelmingly expressed support for a roadmap to citizenship for new Americans, like farm workers, who contribute to our country,” said UFW spokeswoman Maria Machuca.

Goodlatte’s proposal would create a new agricultural temporary worker program that would result in massive job losses for U.S. workers by transforming the farm labor force into a system of temporary workers with no meaningful protections or rights, according to a UFW press release.

Goodlatte’s bill proposes to re place the existing H-2A agricultural temporary worker program with a new H-2C program that the group says minimizes government oversight, limits workers’ access to judicial relief and legal assistance, and reduces temporary workers’ minimum-work guarantee. H-2C also eliminates the requirement that employers provide housing for temporary workers as well as U.S. workers who travel to the worksite. The bill also seeks to eliminate travel-expense reimbursement for temporary workers.

Gene Richard, who works with Pennsylvania mushroom farmers, has no shortage of examples of how ineffective the current system, which provides only seasonal workers.

A local grower “told me he is 30 people short and for two straight days he didn’t get his mushrooms harvested,” said Richard. “He figures he lost anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 over those two days because his mushrooms went from the mushrooms you buy in a store [in the fresh produce section] to the mushrooms you buy in a can, bringing the price down from about 85 cents a pound to about 35-40 cents a pound. We’ve got to stress to our legislators that we can’t wait until tomorrow or the next day to get our products harvested. They have to be harvested when they’re ready, which is why we need immigration reform that will give us a steady workforce.”

Instead of Goodlatte’s bill, UFW is urging lawmakers to support bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation like the S. 744 in the Senate. The balanced immigration reform bill includes fair and workable farm labor provisions, according to the American Farm Bureau.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) was introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, Dick Durbin, D-IL, Marco Rubio, R-FL, Bob Menendez, D-NJ, Michael Bennet, D-CO, Jeff Flake, R-AZ, John McCain, R-AZ, and Chuck Schumer, D-NY. The proposal calls for a roadmap to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country and includes special agricultural provisions, negotiated by UFW, major grower associations, and Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, Orrin Hatch, R-UT, Rubio and Bennet.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a media phone conference stressed the importance of moving a stalled immigration reform package through, to not only help U.S. farmers, but also to boost Social Security and income tax coffers.

“Comprehensive immigration reform is extraordinarily important to get done this year,” Vilsack said. “From an economic perspective, it impacts entrepreneurs and small businesses that are trying to grow but don’t have the number of hands they need in the field. This is a growth bill.”

Former Arizona Gov. Napolitano, also pointed out the importance of the bill relating to border security, referring to E-Verify, a monitoring service that allows for tracking of immigrants here on visa programs.

Farmers and ranchers from across the country have been visiting the Capitol to share a message with lawmakers on the reform: As it is in the fields when crops are ready for harvesting, time is of the essence in passing immigration reform legislation.

“It’s been six years since we had the last real conversation on immigration reform, and it’s been more than two decades since Congress passed an immigration reform bill,” said Cody Lyon, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) director of grassroots and policy advocacy. “This is really important for farmers and ranchers. We want to make sure this is done right, which means putting in place a system that really works for all of agriculture.”

Two of the key components of the Senate immigration reform bill are a Blue Card program for current experienced farm workers and a new agricultural visa program to meet future labor needs, explained Kristi Boswell, AFBF labor specialist.

“The bill’s agriculture provisions are intended to ensure farmers and ranchers can maintain their experienced workers who are in undocumented status and will replace H-2A with a program with more flexibility,” she said.

According to AFBF, under the Blue Card program, experienced agricultural workers can obtain legal immigration status by sat isfying criteria such as passing a background check, paying a fine and proving that applicable taxes have been paid. Blue Card workers would be required to continue to work in agriculture before having the opportunity to qualify for a green card.

In addition, the bill would establish a new visa program that allows agricultural employers to hire guestworkers, either under contract or at will. Visa holders would be able to work in the U.S. under a three-year visa and work for any designated agricultural employer. The program would be administered by USDA.

The Senate is pushing for final passage of the legislation before adjourning for the Fourth of July recess. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor