Immigration Comes to Forefront

DC Dialogue

Agricultural coalition supports new program to address unique needs of farm labor.

Published on: January 31, 2013

After the election, immigration reform appeared to be an area where Democrats and Republicans could find some common ground on moving forward on a compromise. This week it again shows that energy from the White House and Senate appear to be encouraging, but the timeline is tight and partisan politics need to be abandoned.

American agriculture as we know it would not be possible without the contributions of more than 1.5 million hired workers each year. Experts believe that more than 70% of agricultural workers are undocumented, a rate higher than any other industry.

Comprehensive immigration reform efforts failed twice under the Bush administration. Obama promised in both campaigns to act, but then he didn't, even when Democrats controlled Congress his first two years.





"Gun control got in the way of a train that could have moved this year," said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation. She noted that there is a better shot for Congress to tackle the issue in 2013 than there has been for a long time.

In remarks Jan. 29, the President chanted, "Now is the time," to address common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. Thatcher did warn the politics are up against the issue that has typically divided Republicans and Democrats. She said it may come down to whether Democrats want to "give" Republicans immigration or hold it against them.

A bipartisan proposal laid out by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., gives more details into the starting ground for a needed debate this year.  The Senate proposal creates an agricultural worker program and allows employers to hire immigrants if they can demonstrate that American workers aren't available.

To set agriculture up as a viable voice within the immigration discussion, organizations representing a broad cross-section of agricultural employers have formed the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC).

For agriculture the Senate's proposal offers the greatest starting point because of its recognition of the unique labor needs of production agriculture and the vital role that immigrant farm workers play in feeding all Americans, something strongly encouraging to the AWC.

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), explained that the President's proposal did not prescribe any special conditions for agriculture which is "concerning."

AWC supports the creation of a new H-2A guest worker program that is not "riddled with bureaucracy" and allows for the year-round labor force the flexibility and portability that lacks in the current program, Boswell said.

"The President's reliance on the current H-2A program is troublesome for agriculture," she said. "There have been attempts of reform in the past, but it is time for a new program, rather than fix a broken program."

Boswell explained that there has been significant increased H-2A enforcement, but as heard from those in the industry, it is difficult to operate and creates a "musical chairs of workforce" with documented shortages of not only legal workforce but actual employees.   

Timeline

With things moving "very expeditiously" Boswell expects more definitive bill language out by March.

Depending on how budget discussions go, Boswell said Congress could begin to tackle reform in the first six to nine months of the year.

It is expected that the Senate will move forward on its proposal, and the President intends to let the Senate play out their proposal before he gives any more language or gets more detailed beyond his framework announced Jan. 29.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction on immigration, has planned a hearing on the issue in February.

On the House side, there are private discussions going on, however, Boswell said nothing formal has been released.

Coalition's work

Boswell said the coalition is working with Sen. Rubio and another co-sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) on details of the agricultural components of the immigration bill.

While acknowledging that the AWC group is not united on every issue, comprehensive immigration reform is not likely to happen without agriculture, and that labor issues affect all of agriculture, not just fruits and vegetables but also livestock and nursery.

The only legal means to hire temporary ag workers is the H-2A program, which is beset with problems. Only 4% of the farm labor market is comprised of H-2A visa-holders. One significant part of the AWC proposes that applications for a new Agricultural Worker Visa Program would go through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rather than through the Department of Labor (DOL), though DOL would continue to handle enforcement.

The new visa program would provide flexibility to both employees and employers by including two options: one for at-will employees, who can move from employer to employer without a contractual commitment (allowing workers to follow harvests for different crops), and one for contract employees to commit to working for an employer for a fixed period of time.

The AWC proposed agriculture worker program would provide visas for up to 11 months for “at will” employees or a year for contract employees, with employees required to spend a period of time in their home countries at regular intervals. The proposal also supports an “adjustment of status for experienced but unauthorized agricultural workers” living in the U.S.

"We have an unprecedented opportunity now that Democrats and Republicans are having a serious conversation about the critical need for immigration reform--an opportunity that cannot be wasted," said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers. "Agricultural employers have come together as never before in lock-step and agreement about a workable proposal that will serve the needs of farmers, workers and the American people. The time for immigration reform is now."

Jerry Kozak, president and chief executive officer of National Milk Producers Federation, added after seven years of hard but fruitless work on the issue, dairy farmers have a rare opportunity in 2013 to achieve a comprehensive solution to the immigration policy challenge.