Stakeholders reach agreement on farm worker program
By Derrick Cain
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
WASHINGTON, April 12, 2013 - A group of senators, labor unions and farm groups announced today that they have reached an agreement on a framework for a farm worker program as part of a larger immigration reform plan.
The agreement deals with wages and visa caps, and four senators - Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have sounded off on it.
“After months of negotiation, I can announce that a bipartisan agreement has been reached addressing key issues of agricultural workers in the forthcoming comprehensive immigration reform bill,” Feinstein said. “[We] have worked closely with farm workers and representatives from numerous agricultural sectors across the country-all have come together to endorse this agreement, which resolves outstanding issues including wage levels, agricultural guest worker visas and protections for U.S. workers.”
While the details are still being ironed out, the agreement involves a new farm worker program to replace the current H-2A program and to provide a path to legal status for undocumented workers.
The new program would set a formula by which wages for the workers would increase each year with a cap and a floor. It would set a cap of 112,000 3-year visas each year.
Bennet and Hatch both applauded the deal.
“This agreement means that Colorado growers and producers won't have to watch their crops rot in the ground or wither on the vines while also providing important protections for workers,” Bennet said.
“Agricultural immigration issues are extraordinarily complicated,” Hatch said. “And that the farmers and workers have come together to back this consensus proposal is an achievement that only weeks ago didn't seem possible.”
Notably, a Rubio spokesman said his office would not comment “until the entire immigration bill is ready to be introduced.” Recently, when Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced a deal on the guest worker program, Rubio balked and said there was no finalized deal.
Still, many in the agriculture sector were elated over this latest announcement.
“It's a complete agreement,” Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, told Agri-Pulse. “It was intense, lengthy discussions with union reps.”
Nassif said the agreement will be put into writing this weekend and given to the “group of eight” senators, who have been at the heart of immigration negotiations.
As part of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), Nassif said his group has been working with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the senators since last weekend to reach a deal.
“The agreement the [AWC] was able to negotiate with the UFW is a crucial step in solving our immigration crisis and securing a stable and legal workforce in the years to come,” Nassif said. “Over the past year, the agriculture community was able to come together in a historically broad coalition. The force of agricultural producers and worker representatives coming together on a framework will play a significant role in achieving immigration reform this year.”
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), said the agreement will help provide farmers with a “much needed legal labor supply.” AFBF is also part of AWC.
“The framework and objectives established today are a positive step toward achieving meaningful immigration reform,” 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.”
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said his organization is “very pleased.”
“Under the proposed new immigration process, farm workers would be able to work in the fields without fear of getting deported immediately and will be able to reunite with their families in a relatively short period of time,” Rodriguez said. “The bill would give professional farm workers presently in the U.S., who have been contributing to our country, temporary legal status and the right to earn a green card in the future by continuing to work in agriculture.”
UFW said, under the proposal, farm workers would have the option to apply for paperwork to legalize their status either through the regular process for non-agricultural workers, or through a special process created for those working in the agriculture industry.
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