Immigration reform is a major issue for agriculture as livestock, dairy, fruit and vegetable growers need a stable and legal work force. A new proposal would create a system that is good for farmers and farm workers. The bipartisan legislation has the support of over 70 agricultural organizations. Jerry Kozak, with the National Milk Producers Federation, says adoption of the plan is critical to solving the labor shortage on American farms, “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.” “This is an important step forward in our fight to achieve meaningful immigration reform to provide a legal and stable workforce for fruit and vegetable growers,” said United CEO Tom Stenzel. Nancy Foster, President & CEO, US Apple Association said each year in the US the apple industry produces around 20 billion apples, every one of which must be picked by hand at harvest time by farm workers, “And we need a reliable and skilled workforce to do that.”
The proposal calls for granting temporary legal status to workers who are currently working in agriculture and sets up a process by which they can apply for permanent legal status. Kozak identified four key items essential to dairy farmers that any eventual deal on immigration reform must contain. These include:
- 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.
- 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.
- Assuring the future flow of new workers so that 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.
- 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.
Arturo Rodriguez, with the United Farm Workers, says the program will provide an incentive for farm workers to stay working in agriculture in order to move toward permanent legal status, “Farm workers will have the incentive to stay working in agriculture because they will have the option to apply for paperwork to legalize their status in the US either through the regular non-farm worker system or through the new system set up for farm workers.”
While the legislation has bipartisan support, its ride through Congress will be a rough one. Many rural lawmakers oppose legalizing undocumented workers, but agriculture needs an experienced and legal labor force which this plan would provide. A number of farm organizations came together on Wednesday at the National Press Club to brief the media and demonstrate that agriculture is united in supporting this proposal.
Key Agricultural Labor Provisions in Immigration Reform Bill
- Current undocumented farmworkers would be eligible to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to remain working in agriculture:
- Ag workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays or 575 hours prior to December 31, 2012 can adjust to this new Blue Card status.
- 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.
- 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 agricultural employer, under a three-year visa. Employees will then be able to move within the country, working “at will” for any other authorized agricultural 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.
- 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 circumstances in agricultural labor require.
- The new program will be administered by the Department of Agriculture.