Apr 22, 2013Ag community voices support for immigration proposal
A recent agreement between agriculture, labor and Congressional interests is being hailed as a key step in achieving comprehensive immigration reform – reform that includes long-sought provisions essential to growers.
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act was introduced in the U.S Senate on April 17. Later that day, members of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) held a press conference with Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers (UFW), to announce their agreement on key agricultural labor provisions, which were included in the Senate bill.
“It’s important for immigration legislation to include the framework and objectives to ensure America’s farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a secure and stable workforce now and in the future,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
AWC represents nearly 70 ag organizations, most of which are in the fresh produce industry.
“Each side had to make compromises, and while it doesn’t do everything each of us wants, it goes a long way to address most of our concerns,” said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers Association.
The proposed reform, which would phase out H-2A visas and mandate a revised version of the E-Verify program, includes the following ag labor provisions:
– Current undocumented farm workers would be eligible to obtain legal status through a new Blue Card program if they choose to remain working in agriculture. Workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 work days, or 575 hours, prior to Dec. 31, 2012, can adjust to this new Blue Card status. After a minimum of five years, workers who fulfill their Blue Card work requirements will become eligible to apply for a Green Card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions and pay a fine.
– A new agricultural guest-worker program will be established, with two options: 1) An “At-Will” option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific job offer from an authorized agricultural employer, under a three-year visa. Employees will then be able to move within the country, working “at will” for any other authorized agricultural employer during that time. Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance to these workers. 2) A “Contract-Based” option will allow workers to enter the country to accept a specific contract for a specific amount of work from an authorized employer. This will also provide for a three-year visa and require employers to provide housing or a housing allowance.
– All guest workers will be paid an agreed-upon wage.
– There is a visa cap for the first five years while current workers are participating in the Blue Card program. The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to modify that cap in certain circumstances.
– The new program will be administered by USDA.
“The workforce has been one of our largest challenges,” said Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Association, one of 11 groups that founded AWC. “We know many of our workers today are undocumented … but they are doing work that many Americans are not willing to do. Our challenge has been harvesting and packing the crops. Today, we’re facing labor shortages and the inability to find workers and that problem is not going away.”
Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the interests of the parties involved in the negotiations were largely put aside to “bring ag producers and labor together in a once-in-a-generation opportunity, with the purpose of getting a legal and stable workforce.”
UFW’s Rodriguez was grateful his organization’s involvement in the efforts helped lead to a “historic moment.”
“With this (legislation), farm workers would no longer have to fear deportation … and the compromises on wage rates that were reached should create stability for farmers and workers alike,” he said. “This bill would give professional farm workers presently in the U.S. temporary legal status and the right to earn a green card.
“We’ve also come to a compromise on wage rates while strengthening some of the worker protections,” Rodriguez said. “We’re hopeful these new wage rates will create stability. We feel the agreement we came up with will provide farm workers a sense of security, and it does provide the opportunity for workers to improve their situation if they choose to do so.”
According to reports, the bill defines hourly wages based on job classifications such as graders/sorters, agricultural equipment operators and farm workers. The wages for the lowest paid of those three classifications – farm workers – would be set at $9.17 an hour for 2014, rising to $9.40 and $9.64 for 2015 and 2016, respectively.
“We believe the comprehensive bill and its compromise farm worker provisions will help improve working conditions and job opportunities for farm workers,” Rodriguez said. “We will work with President Obama, our allies in Congress and the immigrant rights community to enact a law this year.”
Rodriguez indicated other worker organizations, including AFL-CIO, had expressed support for the agriculture agreement.
Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, said the current H-2A guest-worker program is “broken beyond repair.”
“Included in the legislation is an agriculture title that addresses both the current and undocumented workforce, and establishes a new agriculture guest-worker program to replace the antiquated and expensive H-2A program,” Foster said.
She said the 20 billion apples grown annually in the United States have to be picked individually, creating a seasonal need for about 70,000 harvest workers.
“This bill sets up a workable program,” Foster said. “There are significant incentives for experienced (undocumented) agricultural workers to apply for a ‘blue card’ and commit to working in agriculture for the next three to five years,” Foster said. “Under the proposal, the H-2A program will be phased out and replaced with a W visa program which is streamlined, market-based and significantly less costly than the current H-2A program.”
Foster said the proposed program is designed so that current H-2A users can continue to use their returning workers, “but do so in a more streamlined and cost-efficient system. The caps that apply to the larger ‘low-skilled’ guest-worker program do not apply to the agriculture program. The agriculture program will have a cap, but it will be significantly higher than the other program.”
Nassif, president of Western Growers, said aspects of the agricultural provisions that have been controversial in the past – such as E-Verify – are being cleaned up under the revised language. It appears likely that USDA will be charged with monitoring the employee verification system.
“E-Verify has always been supported by our membership,” Nassif said. “There’s been some problems with errors in the program, but we’ve never had a problem with the means to verify the legality of our workers. It’s something we believe in strongly.”
AWC members acknowledged that they have had little say in what some see as the major impediment to immigration reform passing Congress: enhanced security at the border.
“We have been responsible for the agricultural provisions and are not in any way engaged in the broader comprehensive debate, of which border security is a huge component,” Conner said.
Stenzel said that from the agriculture community’s perspective, seeing increasing waves of undocumented individuals has not been a factor in recent years.
“From our fruit and vegetable producers’ standpoint, we’re seeing no increase in flow in terms of undocumented workers coming to this country, particularly for the last five to 10 years,” Stenzel said. “As we look to the future with an aging worker population, that is not being filled today by them crossing the border.”
While a similar bill had not yet been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, AWC members said they had met with a bipartisan group in the House that might introduce immigration reform legislation in the coming weeks.
“We’re going to be meeting with everyone, and will do so until we get this bill passed and signed by President Barack Obama,” Rodriguez said.