Updated: Senate readies immigration provisions for farm employees

Issue Date: April 17, 2013
By Christine Souza

Update, posted April 17: Comprehensive immigration-reform legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate Wednesday morning, including language on agricultural immigration.

In a statement, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger thanked the senators who introduced the legislation, and stressed that improvements to the immigration system must account for the unpredictable, seasonal labor needs on farms in California and throughout the nation.

"Everyone agrees that the current system is broken," Wenger said. "It doesn't work for farmers or for people who want to come to the United States to work on farms. An improved agricultural immigration system will enhance border security and assure steady supplies of American-grown food."

Watch for additional coverage in the April 24 issue of Ag Alert.

U.S. senators were expected to introduce a comprehensive immigration-reform package this week, which includes an upgrade to the current immigration program for agricultural employment.

California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg said the agreement among a group of senators, agriculture groups and labor representatives would reform the country's immigration system to include a plan to replace the current agricultural guestworker program, known as H-2A. A newly proposed visa program would allow people either to enter the country under a contract with an agricultural employer or move from employer to employer, Pegg said. The immigration reform package would also provide a path to legal status for improperly documented people who have been working in agriculture.

The proposal was expected to be introduced on Tuesday, after the Ag Alert® deadline; check www.agalert.com and www.cfbf.com for updated information.

CFBF President Paul Wenger said California farmers and ranchers have reported more problems this spring in hiring enough people to tend and harvest crops and livestock.

"Farm Bureau has advocated for a new immigration program for many years, so to see progress and a serious proposal is encouraging for both farmers and employees," he said.

Pegg noted that Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had "worked tirelessly" with fellow senators and coalition members during negotiations on agricultural provisions in an overall immigration-reform package.

The proposed new agricultural visa program would create a three-year visa, with a maximum of 112,000 visas to be issued each year.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said he is pleased a framework agreement was reached on agricultural labor provisions between the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which AFBF and CFBF are members, and the United Farm Workers.

"These successful negotiations will help provide America's farmers and ranchers a much-needed legal labor supply, while paving the way for many farm and ranch workers to obtain legal status," Stallman said. "Ensuring access to a legal workforce is a high priority for AFBF and we are pleased with this first step in the process. We look forward to working with Senate and House leaders as comprehensive immigration-reform legislation is introduced and moves its way through Congress."

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition welcomed the agreement on agriculture and added that the framework and objectives represent a "positive step" toward providing farmers and ranchers access to a legal workforce.

"For many farmers across the country, finding a sufficient number of workers to harvest crops or care for animals is the biggest challenge they face in running their businesses," the AWC stated in a news release. "There is a shortage of U.S. workers willing and able to perform farm work. Securing a reliable and competent workforce for our nation's farms and ranches is essential to ensuring that American consumers continue to enjoy abundant and affordable food on their grocery store shelves."

The agricultural coalition said it is "committed to include an agricultural guestworker program and supporting the general framework negotiated in any final immigration reform package. As members of Congress begin the process of drafting legislative language, we look forward to working with them to ensure that the bill details reflect the goals and intent of this framework agreement."

Nearly two-thirds of farmers who responded to a CFBF survey last year said they experienced challenges finding enough employees. Farmers said efforts to attract employees from among the domestic workforce have met with consistent failure and that the existing H-2A immigration program lacks the flexibility needed for most farmers and prospective employees.

Because they depend on an immigrant workforce, farmers have sought reformed immigration laws that would allow them to hire people who have entered the U.S. legally and would recognize existing patterns of agricultural employment.

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

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