Farm Bureau tells Congress members about immigration


Issue Date: April 10, 2013
By Christine Souza
California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg, left, and Bob Rucker, center, district director for Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, speak about immigration with Solange Goncalves Altman of Modesto in the Manteca listening session.
Photos/Christine Souza and Carrie Crane
From left, Tulare County Farm Bureau President Steve Godlin, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, TCFB First Vice President Joey Airoso, Kings County Farm Bureau President Michael Miya and Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, discuss immigration and other issues important to farmers at the Tulare County Farm Bureau office last week.
Photos/Christine Souza and Carrie Crane

As lawmakers in both houses of U.S. Congress work toward a comprehensive immigration reform package for the nation that is expected to be released this week, California Farm Bureau Federation members met with representatives in their home districts last week to ensure that the voice of agriculture is heard and that any deal reached contains a workable solution for agriculture.

At an immigration listening session held last Wednesday at the Place of Refuge in Manteca by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, with Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, members of the community shared views on immigration policy reform.

California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg provided an overview of the state's labor shortages as documented in a 2012 survey of farmers conducted by CFBF.

"Seventy-one percent of farmers who are growing labor-intensive crops are experiencing shortages. Those shortages range anywhere from 20 percent to over 50 percent and they really are impacting a broad spectrum of farmers, whether it is small, medium or large," Pegg said. "Many of those farmers delayed harvesting or pruning to adjust to the fact that they are facing labor shortages."

Brentwood asparagus grower Barbara Cecchini said she has experienced shortages for three years, but that shortages this year happened earlier than ever before.

"Our shortages usually show up about late April to May, but this year it's been from the beginning. We have not been able to rotate our (asparagus) cutters to give them a day off, and we have not been able to rotate the people in our packing shed," Cecchini said. "We hope there can be something done (to reform immigration policy) so that it is not as cumbersome as it is today."

California agriculture relies on roughly 400,000 workers to meet peak-season labor needs, Pegg said. She explained that very few come to the state through the federal H-2A visa program.

"H-2A is not a large program that we utilize here. Only about 3,000 of those 400,000 workers come in through the H-2A program," Pegg said. "No matter how many Band-Aids you put on it, the H-2A program is not a workable program for many states and agriculture. It's important to look at why that program has not been successful moving forward when defining a new program."

CFBF would like revised immigration policy that includes legal status for those currently in the U.S. working in agriculture and contributing to their communities, Pegg said.

"Several surveys have indicated that 70 percent of our workers are not properly documented," Pegg said. "These people are part of our communities, they are part of our families and they've worked alongside many of our members for decades and generations."

As the next generation of immigrants grows up in the United States, Pegg said, they often do not want to work in agriculture. Therefore, the country needs to maintain a visa program that allows people to come to the United States legally to work that is not burdened with arbitrary caps and red tape, she added.

"In California, we may need workers for three weeks to several months, so it can vary dramatically. With oncoming weather, we may need workers sooner than we originally anticipated," Pegg said. "So a visa program that has too many lag times and hoops is unrealistic for meeting our labor demands."

Bruce Blodgett, San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation executive director, shared his concerns that as the economy improves, workers will find work in sectors outside of agriculture, which means even greater shortages for farmers.

"We hate to think what agriculture is going to look like when those other industries start picking up and we run into greater shortages," Blodgett said. "Looking forward, we need adequate numbers of folks that can enter the country and that we have a source of identification for them."

During the hearing, Denham announced that he is interested in a single immigration solution.

"We need a solution that addresses all of the various issues, including a guest worker or temporary worker program," Denham said. "Until we put something together in one package that can pass both houses and fix our overall immigration problem, I'm going to stand strong."

At the Tulare County Farm Bureau office in Visalia last week, about a dozen board members met with Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and David Valadao, R-Hanford, to discuss immigration reform policy, as well as water, trade and other important agricultural issues.

"We're pleased to see our California members of Congress so engaged on immigration. It will take a lot of people working together to make something happen," said CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little, who also serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service."We've worked very hard on unifying our industry and as a result, we've been able to speak to Congress with a single voice; it's gratifying to see members who represent farmers from the valley working hard on a solution."

While Nunes and Valadao said they are cautiously optimistic that something can be done this year to pass immigration reform, they heard from farmers about what they would like to see in an immigration reform plan. Beekeeper Steve Godlin, Tulare County Farm Bureau president, said the immigration issue is very real for those in agriculture.

"We are small businesses and we work with these folks side by side all day long," Godlin said. "We care deeply how their families are doing. It is heartbreaking when I see some of the struggles they are having because of having to live in the shadows here."

In the meantime, in Washington, D.C., a bipartisan group of senators and representatives have been meeting largely behind closed doors to secure some kind of deal. Congress is trying to reach an agreement on guest worker programs, legalization and border security. As for agriculture, there is discussion of recognizing people who have worked in agriculture and a potential visa program. The details are expected to be released this week.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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