Farmers press Congress for immigration bill


Issue Date: March 13, 2013
By Dave Kranz
CFBF President Paul Wenger, right, discusses the need for a workable agricultural immigration program with White House domestic policy aide Esther Olavarria, far left, as CFBF board member Jim Spinetta and Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg listen.
Photo/Dave Kranz
CFBF Second Vice President Jamie Johansson, left, talks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, about the prospects for immigration reform during a meeting in McCarthy’s Capitol office.
Photo/Dave Kranz

Even as Congress struggled with sequestration and other budget matters, members from both sides of the aisle told California Farm Bureau Federation representatives they believe momentum is continuing toward comprehensive reform of federal immigration law—and that a revised agricultural immigration program will be part of the package.

Advocating for immigration reform was a top priority for CFBF board members who visited Washington, D.C., for three days of meetings last week. The Farm Bureau representatives met with key members of the California congressional delegation, staff of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees that will shape immigration legislation, plus White House staff members who are working on the issue.

CFBF President Paul Wenger noted that California farmers have been pressing for an effective agricultural immigration program for years, and that farmers from other regions have now taken up the cause.

"It's not just a California issue anymore," Wenger said during a meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "The local food movement has increased seasonal labor demand around the country and farmers in many places have had trouble hiring enough people."

For example, a North Carolina Farm Bureau report released late last month showed more than 60 percent of surveyed farmers have had trouble hiring qualified domestic employees—a figure nearly identical to the results of a CFBF survey taken last year.

Farm Bureau members from California distributed results of the CFBF survey to congressional offices as they advocated for an agricultural immigration program proposed by the nationwide Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which CFBF is a member along with the American Farm Bureau Federation and other national, regional and statewide organizations.

The coalition proposal includes a visa program that allows people from other countries to enter the United States legally to work in agriculture.

Under the program, foreign workers could enter the U.S. for a set period of time to work either directly for a registered employer or to move from employer to employer, simlar to the current migratory flow of agricultural employees.

CFBF board members stressed that the at-will option would be the most applicable in California, where farmers and their employees need the flexibility to respond to fast-moving, often unpredictable harvests.

"I do 90 percent of my income in 20 days," said CFBF board member Jim Spinetta, who grows winegrapes in Amador County. "We need to be sure we have people available for harvest."

An existing temporary-worker program for agriculture, known as H-2A, has proven unworkable in California and most other areas of the country, Farm Bureau members said, because of lengthy application processes and rigid requirements particularly unsuited to the realities of fruit and vegetable harvests.

CFBF board member Dennis Atkinson of Shafter, who grows grapes and tree nuts, told a Senate Judiciary Committee staff member that his farm's consistent efforts to recruit employees from the domestic workforce had met with failure.

"I tried the unemployment office for three years in a row with no results," he said. "Zero."

Farmers said they believe border security has been largely achieved and that creation of a workable agricultural immigration program would enhance security further.

"If we have some sort of legal program and bring (immigration) aboveboard, you will also cut down on other illegal activity," such as smuggling people and drugs at the same time, said CFBF board member Ken Doty of Goleta, who grows lemons and avocados.

Both Republican and Democratic representatives from California told the visiting farmers that they expect an immigration package to move forward this spring, with final action by summer, and said they would not favor the package unless it includes a workable agricultural program.

Nursery operator Kathye Rietkerk, a CFBF board member from Fontana, urged members of Congress to make good on that pledge.

"We're so hoping this window of opportunity doesn't close," she said.

As they encouraged action on immigration, members of the CFBF delegation also asked Congress to move forward to complete new, five-year farm legislation. The previous farm bill expired last year and Congress adopted a short-term extension of the previous bill, through September.

As it works on a longer-term bill this year, Farm Bureau members asked Congress to act on California priorities including funding for specialty-crop research, block grants, and pest and disease prevention; dedicated funding for agricultural projects to meet air-quality regulations; annual, managed grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land; wider eligibility for conservation programs; and mandatory funding for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis noted that labs within the network are often the first to identify animal diseases and serve as a vital early-warning system for emerging and foreign animal diseases.

"The earlier you detect something, the easier it is to control it," Matteis said. "That's why it's so important to maintain the diagnostic labs."

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.