Wednesday's big ag news was the U.S. Senate introduction of immigration labor legislation with provisions agreed to by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition and United Farm Workers. The bill, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, "is an important step forward in our fight to achieve meaningful immigration reform and to provide a legal and stable workforce for fruit and vegetable growers," said United Fresh CEO Tom Stenzel.
Some organization leaders making up AWC strongly supported Stenzel's comments. They included: Nancy Foster, President & CEO, US Apple Association; Chuck Conner, President & CEO, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; Tom Nassif, President & CEO, Western Growers; Jerry Kozak, President & CEO, National Milk Producers Federation; and Mike Stuart, President & CEO, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. American Farm Bureau is also part of it.
The Senate bill looks to provide the food supply system with the sound footing it needs to grow, explained New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton. But the hard work isn't over. The reforms must pass both houses of Congress. And there are plenty of amendments waiting to be tacked onto it.
Five need-to-know provisions
Here are five key provisions of the bill impacting farm worker availability:
1. Current undocumented farmworkers would be eligible to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to remain working in agriculture:
Those who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours before December 31, 2012 can adjust to this new Blue Card status.
2. After a minimum of five years, workers who fulfill their Blue Card work requirements in U.S. agriculture will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions and pay a fine.
3. A new agricultural guest worker program will be established, with two work options:
An "At-Will" option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific job offer from an authorized ag employer, under a three-year visa. Employees will then be able to move within the country, working "at will" for any other authorized ag employer during that time. Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance to these workers.
A "Contract-Based" option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific contract for a specific amount of work from an authorized employer. This will also provide for a three-year visa, and require employers to provide housing or a housing allowance.
All guest workers will be paid an agreed-upon wage under the terms of this agreement.
4. There is a visa cap for the first five years of the program while current workers are participating in the Blue Card program. The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to modify that cap if ag labor circumstances require.
5. The new program will be administered by the Department of Agriculture.
Last week, Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association, told Farm Progress: "We haven't solved the problem yet, but I'm optimistic we can. Americans are good at reaching solutions – after exhausting all possibilities."
Labor-intensive crops and commodities are increasingly operating in a truly globally competitive market, he added. Imports are fast commanding larger shares of U.S. consumption.
U.S. tomato and strawberry workers, especially, "are on the bubble. In Florida, these industries are fighting for their survival in the face of a fast-changing import picture. If we can't come up with a workable solution, we'll export production to other countries."