Immigration plan is encouraging, farm groups say
By Christine Souza
Agricultural organizations say they are encouraged by the release of a legislative framework that tackles comprehensive immigration reform, with the promise of movement to address the issue in the U.S. Senate by this spring.
On Monday, a day before President Obama was to give a policy speech on immigration, a bipartisan group of senators announced the outlines of a comprehensive plan to overhaul the country's immigration system. The plan, presented by eight senators including Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, would create a path to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S., contingent on border security.
The senators said their framework would also reform the nation's legal immigration system; create an effective employment verification system intended to prevent identity theft and end hiring of future unauthorized workers; and establish an improved process for admitting future workers.
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said he is pleased to see that the plan includes a pledge to secure the border while crafting a workable immigration program for agriculture.
"We're encouraged that our elected officials acknowledge the immigration issues that face the nation and in particular farmers and their employees, and that immigration reform will be a priority this year," Wenger said. "Farmers struggle to hire enough domestic employees, so they rely on foreign employees willing to harvest America's food. Many of the people who tend to the food we eat are not properly documented. Reform of immigration laws should secure our borders and allow immigrants who are contributing to our communities to work in farming."
The plan for comprehensive immigration reform includes legalizing workers who are in the U.S. now, and development of a new agricultural guestworker program, according to CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little.
"The immigration reform plan that the senators have put forth is a positive step because finally, we have members of Congress putting pencil to paper to figure this out. That's a positive development and is a lot more than has happened since 2006," said Little, who also serves as chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service. "Agricultural organizations are working hard to maintain unity and put forward proposals that benefit everyone. We can't leave any region or sector behind."
The framework for new immigration policy calls for certain unauthorized immigrants to be treated differently, such as minor children and people working in agriculture. According to the plan, "Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long-term stability of our nation's agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume."
The plan makes it clear that those working in agriculture will earn a path to citizenship through a new agricultural worker program.
"This proposal is important because it addresses two really tough problems, such as what to do about the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally now—many of whom are an integral part of our businesses and our communities—and future workforce needs," Little said, "by ensuring that when American workers decline to do agricultural work, we will have the means to hire an adequate, legal agricultural workforce."
The senators said they intend to create "a workable program to meet the needs of America's agricultural industry, including dairy, to find agricultural workers when American workers are not available to fill open positions." Employers would demonstrate that they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position and that the hiring of an immigrant would not displace American workers.
Overhauling the nation's immigration system is long overdue, Wenger said, pointing out that last year, nearly two-thirds of California farmers who responded to a Farm Bureau survey said they experienced challenges finding enough employees to tend and harvest crops.
"Nearly two-thirds of the farmers who responded to our survey described significant problems hiring enough employees," Wenger said. "We learned that not having a workable immigration program for agricultural employees affects farmers throughout the state and across an array of crops, especially fruits and vegetables. California's future as the nation's leading source of nutritious fruits and vegetables relies on a steady workforce—and immigration reform is the only solution."
As a new harvest season begins, Wenger said, it's important for Congress to work on a solution sooner rather than later. He added that the California Farm Bureau, as part of the newly formed Agriculture Workforce Coalition and as a partner in the American Farm Bureau Federation, is focused on enacting reform this year.
"It's important that any agricultural immigration program provide the flexibility needed for the large variety of fruits, vegetables, crops and livestock grown by American farmers," Wenger said. "What we've seen from the bipartisan group of senators reflects movement in the right direction for reform, and Congress must keep moving forward."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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