Farm groups maintain pressure on immigration bill
By Christine Souza
Agricultural advocates say time is of the essence for farmers who want Congress to adopt a workable immigration program for agricultural employees, now that the House Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would require employers to use E-Verify, an electronic employment verification system to confirm the work eligibility of newly hired employees against a federal database.
The California Farm Bureau Federation, American Farm Bureau Federation and other agricultural organizations say they will oppose the Legal Workforce Act by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, if it does not include an agricultural worker program that will allow farmers to maintain a legal work force if E-Verify becomes mandatory.
CFBF President Paul Wenger says not having a workable, national system in place to hire immigrant agricultural employees poses a serious problem.
"If Congress decides to require farmers to use E-Verify, it must also include a workable program where folks who want to come and work in the United States can go through a process to have legal and secure documentation, follow the harvest and do agricultural work that U.S. workers are unwilling to do," Wenger said.
The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines last week to send Smith's bill, H.R. 2885, to the floor for consideration by the full House.
A grassroots effort among a coalition of agricultural groups, including AFBF, CFBF, Western Growers, the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Milk Producers Federation, United Fresh Produce Association and US Apple, circulated a letter to members of Congress expressing the need for a solution for agriculture. This resulted in considerable resistance about a stand-alone E-Verify bill, Wenger said.
"By keeping agriculture together, this kept pressure on Congress, especially Republican congressional members, so they are aware that an agricultural worker program has to be a part of the E-Verify bill," Wenger said. "It cannot be, 'We'll do E-Verify and we'll take care of ag worker needs later.'"
Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president of government relations for the American Nursery and Landscape Association, said although the prospect of mandatory E-Verify could be damaging to farmers and ranchers, it presents an opportunity at the same time.
"We actually have an enhanced opportunity now. Agriculture is at the center of this debate and I think we have a chance to force a debate around what it will actually take," Regelbrugge said. "Mandatory E-Verify is a real problem, but out of this problem we may have an opportunity. But we are going to have to work hard for it; it is not going to just fall in our laps."
CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service, said Farm Bureau and many other farm organizations have been supportive of a proposal developed by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, that would create an entirely new, market-based "W" visa program for agricultural workers. Lungren offered his proposal as an amendment to H.R. 2885, but the amendment was ruled "non-germane" by the committee's chairman, Smith.
"It is our understanding that Chairman Smith has promised Rep. Lungren that a program will be included in the E-Verify bill before it reaches the House floor. He also promised Lungren a hearing on the need for an agricultural worker program. We believe this concession is a direct result of grassroots pressure from California farmers who have urged their members of Congress to ensure that an E-Verify bill includes an agricultural worker program," Little said.
Wenger said he believes the efforts by agricultural groups on this issue have made a difference.
"All of agriculture has really stayed together, saying that we need to have a portable, market-driven agricultural worker program that will meet the needs of seasonal and perishable crops," Wenger said. "We've kept all of agriculture together, carrying the same message, which is a huge positive."
Little called this "a critical time" for farmers and ranchers to contact their members of Congress.
"The work that we've done on this up to this point has drawn the attention of members of Congress to the issue, and now is the time to close the deal," he said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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