Lawmakers, farm groups excited by immigration reform passage in Senate

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 27, 2013 - Several lawmakers, agriculture groups, and labor groups applauded the Senate passage Thursday of comprehensive immigration reform legislation (S. 744), which seeks to provide a path to legal status for millions of undocumented people - many of whom are farm workers.

In a historic vote presided over by Vice President Joe Biden, the Senate approved the bill with a bipartisan 68-32 vote.

Fourteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two Independents in support of the bill. Opposing the legislation were 32 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.

The bill, which seeks to bolster border security and create an orderly system to allow illegal aliens a chance at citizenship, would create a new “blue card” program for experienced farm workers, and a new version of the current agricultural worker visa program.

Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the legislation does not “just secure our borders or mend our broken legal immigration system.

“This bill paves the way for people who are American in all but paperwork to become full participants in this society,” Reid said. “It acknowledges the contributions of generations of immigrants - immigrants who founded this country and built it into the superpower it is today, immigrants like my father-in-law, who was born in Russia as Israel Goldfarb.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who as part of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” helped shepherd the bill to passage, said the bill represents a “giant step forward toward solving our immigration problem today.”

Globally Positioned Agriculture

“This is the beginning of a wonderful day for America, because America has always been a nation of immigrants,” Schumer said. “We all know it is part of the American fabric to take people from abroad and in one generation turn them into proud Americans.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack called the bill's passage “good news for farmers and ranchers, good news for farm workers, and good news for rural America.”

“The Senate plan would ensure the stable agricultural workforce that U.S. producers need in order to remain competitive with other nations and maintain our abundant, affordable food supply,” Vilsack said. “For millions of farm workers who today live in the shadows, it will provide an appropriate opportunity to earn legal status by contributing to America's agricultural economy.”

In opposing the bill, Cochran called the bill “fundamentally flawed.”

“It represents a headlong rush to offer a path toward citizenship for those here illegally, with more promises that illegal crossings on the Southwest border might finally end,” Cochran said. “For all its reported benefits, the Congressional Budget Office also reported that it will increase unemployment, suppress wages and only reduce illegal crossings by 25 percent.”

Cochran said the bill does not contain “important reforms related to agriculture worker programs, and it does not fully reform the system employers use to verify the legal status of workers before hiring them.”

Also in opposition, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., voted against the bill largely because he was not allowed to offer various amendments that sought to tighten requirements for the new farm worker program, including higher fines.

The legislation now faces a dark future in the House, where the House Judiciary Committee has recently created its own path on immigration reform. 

The committee approved two bills (H.R. 1773, H.R. 1772) - one that would essentially tweak the current agricultural guest worker program, and one that would mandate the use of the federal work verification program, E-Verify, by all employers.

Committee Chairman and long-time farm expert Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who introduced those bills, said he has many concerns about the Senate-passed package.

“The bill repeats many of the same mistakes made in the 1986 immigration law, which got us into this mess in the first place,” Goodlatte said. “Among my many concerns, the Senate bill does not adequately address the interior enforcement of our immigration laws and allows the executive branch to waive many, if not most, of the bill's requirements.”

Meanwhile, several farm and labor groups warmly greeted the Senate bill's passage.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, welcomed a “fair and workable farm labor provision” in the bill.

“A comprehensive agricultural labor plan that works for all sectors of agriculture and across all regions of our nation is long overdue,” Stallman said. “The Senate-passed bill will help ensure an adequate supply of farm labor. One of the best ways to improve border security is to create a legal, workable way for farm workers to enter our country.”

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said the bill would bring more stability to the agricultural workforce.

“It also allows for peace of mind for all parties in agriculture to know that a more easy-to-use and effective system will be enacted,” Johnson said.

Under the proposal, undocumented farmers would be eligible to obtain legal status through the blue card program.

Agricultural workers who can document working in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 work days in two years would be eligible for the new program.

Then, farm workers who fulfill blue card work requirements, pay all their taxes, have not been convicted of any felony or violent misdemeanor, and pay a $400 fee would be eligible for the current green card. Those work requirements include performing at least 5 years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year, or performing at least 3 years of agricultural employment for at least 150 work days per year.

United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez said the bill would fulfill an “urgent need for an earned legalization program that enables undocumented farm workers who are the backbone of the nation's agricultural industry to swiftly obtain legal immigration status.”

“Most Americans understand and appreciate the contributions that farm workers make to our economy and their vital role in ensuring food safety in our country,” Rodriguez said. “Farm workers will be able to reunite with their families and work without fear of getting deported.”

Jerry Kozak, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, will assist dairy farmers with current and future workforce needs.

“We've known for years that the status quo employment situation in dairy farming is not sustainable,” Kozak said. “Today, the Senate moved decisively past that admission, and voted to change our labor and immigration laws for the better.”

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) called the bill passage “a landmark achievement in agriculture's effort to ensure that America's farmers and ranchers have access to a legal, skilled and stable workforce.”

“In the coming weeks, the AWC looks forward to working with members of the House of Representatives as that chamber begins to develop its own immigration reform proposals,” the organization said. “We encourage House members to ensure that any legislation contains meaningful reform to meet agriculture's current and future labor needs.”

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said, “This carefully negotiated bill won broad support in part because it includes tough compromises made by agricultural workers and employers. While the agricultural worker programs are not perfect, they will help improve the lives and working conditions of the men and women working to put food on our tables and will help ensure a productive agricultural sector.”

In addition, the legislation would create a new agricultural worker program with two work options: a portable, at-will employment-based visa and a contract-based visa program.

The H-2A program would sunset one year after the new visa program is enacted. The new program, administered by the USDA, would provide three-year visas.

Employers of workers under the program would have to register with the USDA as a designated agricultural employer.

Under the plan, workers who become unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days would lose their status and would have to depart from the United States.

The program would be capped at 112,333 visas per year for the first five years of enactment. After five years, the agriculture secretary would determine the cap on an annual basis based on established criterion.

The proposal would set wage rates for these occupation categories:

  • Farmworkers and laborers (Crop, Nursery, and Greenhouse) at $9.64/hour.
  • Graders and sorters at $9.84/hour.
  • Dairy and livestock at $11.37/hour.
  • Agriculture equipment operators at $11.87/hour.
  • Other categories to be determined by the agriculture secretary.

Each base wage would increase annually by at least 1.5 percent, but no more than 2.5 percent as established by the employment cost index. Under the program, all employers would have to provide housing or housing allowances during the term of employment.

Deborah Atwood, AGree executive director, said the legislation recognizes the agricultural sector's vital need for a stable, legal workforce.

“Every sector of our economy will benefit immensely from this legislation, but maybe none more profoundly than American agriculture, which is why all food and ag sectors are united in support,” Atwood said. “This legislation will mean a better future for millions of foreign-born agricultural workers and for farmers and ranchers struggling with serious labor shortages.”

Scott George, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said border security and ensuring a steady workforce have been top priorities for his organization. Illegal border crossings into U.S. farmland have been on the uptick lately.

“I am pleased to see that the Senate has continued the conversation on this important issue that affects all Americans, but especially rural Americans and our members who live and ranch along our borders,” George said. “A strong year-round workforce is paramount to the success of the cattle industry. Cattlemen and depend on a legal and stable workforce year round.”

In addition, all employers would be required to use the federal work verification program, E-Verify, over a five-year phase-in period. Employers with more than 5,000 employees would be phased in within two years, more than 500 employees would be phased in within three years, and all employers, including agricultural employers would be phased in within four years.

As part of the E-Verify system, every non-citizen would be required to show their “biometric work authorization card,” or their “biometric green card.”

Details of the potential visa changes for farm workers can be viewed here.

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