Ag coalition rejects E-Verify without broader measures to ease farm labor shortage

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 4, 2015 - A group representing agricultural employers across the country told Congress on Wednesday that broad legislation addressing the farm labor shortage is needed before implementation of a mandatory E-Verify system.

The message was delivered by Chuck Conner, the head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), speaking for the Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC), before the House Judiciary immigration and border security subcommittee. The panel is reviewing a bill, the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772), which the Judiciary Committee reported out in the previous Congress and which would make the E-Verify program mandatory nationwide. The web-based program, created in 1996, is designed to quickly confirm the eligibility of potential employees.

Together we can feed the Bees"

Mandatory E-Verify without addressing agriculture's broader labor crisis would be devastating,” said Conner, adding that the agriculture industry recognizes the need for interior enforcement of immigration laws. However, he said that enforcement “just cannot be decoupled from addressing agriculture's workforce concerns.”

“Let me be very clear,” Conner testified. “The agricultural industry would be forced to oppose any E-Verify legislation that does not also address the agricultural workforce crisis.”

Conner pointed out that an estimated 70 percent of hired farm workers lack proper authorization to work in the U.S., despite the authentic-looking documents they often present to employers. In addition, the only guest worker program available to agriculture - H-2A - is so cumbersome and divorced from the market-based needs of agriculture that it provides just a small fraction of the workers needed by farmers and ranchers.

In his prepared testimony, Conner cited an American Farm Bureau Federation study that concluded that an enforcement-only approach to the immigration issue that causes agriculture to lose access to its workforce would result in output falling by $30 billion to $60 billion. Domestic fruit production could drop by as much as 61 percent, and vegetable output by up to 31 percent, the study found. The livestock sector could lose as much as 27 percent of its production.

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The labor intensive dairy industry, which must milk its cows twice a day, every day, would be especially hard hit, Conner said. While many in agriculture can try to use the current “but dysfunctional” H-2A temporary and seasonal guest worker program, this program isn't practical for dairy and livestock operations because the need is year-round, he said.

“Thus they are left without any legal channel to find workers if U.S. workers are simply not available or not interested.”

Conner told the lawmakers that the ideal approach to resolve agriculture's labor problem, as recommended in the AFBF study, would be to pair enforcement with an adjustment of status for the experienced workforce and a redesigned guest worker program.

“That is why the AWC has called for legislation which includes both an adjustment for current, experienced, unauthorized workers and a new market-based visa program that provides both portability and contractual opportunities to provide access to a legal workforce into the future,” Conner said.

Prior to the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and the head of the immigration subcommittee, South Carolina's Trey Gowdy, both expressed support for E-Verify, which they noted is being used voluntarily now by about 575,000 employers on a daily basis.

“The expansion of E-Verify will help discourage illegal immigration and protect jobs for legal workers,” Goodlatte said, adding that using the web-based program is “easier than completing a purchase on Amazon.”

Gowdy said that a key part of internal enforcement of U.S. immigration laws is employment verification. Programs are needed that “turn off the jobs magnet and ensure jobs go to legal workers and American citizens,” he said. The hearing, he said, “addresses one piece of the broader picture of reform as the House continues its step-by-step approach to address our country's immigration challenges.”

AWC's steering committee consists of the AFBF, AmericanHort, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, National Council of Agricultural Employers, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, USA Farmers, U.S. Apple Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association, and Western United Dairymen.

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