WASHINGTON, April 17, 2013 – Agriculture stakeholders applauded today the introduction of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would provide a pathway to legal status for about 11 million undocumented people, including farm workers.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced early this morning the 844-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which aims to tighten border security while increasing available visas for foreign workers. In addition, it seeks to increase penalties for U.S. employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.
For the agriculture sector, the bill would create a new “blue card” program for experienced farm workers, and a new version of the current agricultural worker visa program.
A large group of farm groups and producers were joined United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez at a press conference in Washington to discuss the bill. Participants included Chuck Conner, president and chief executive office of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; Jerry Kozak, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation; Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of the Western Growers Association; Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association; Mike Stuart, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association; and Nancy Foster, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Apple Association.
Most of the participants were directly involved in reaching an agreement with several senators on details of the new programs.
“The agreement our groups came to is a crucial step in solving this crisis and securing a stable and legal workforce for agriculture for years to come,” Nassif said. “The force of agricultural producers and worker representatives working together now in support of this legislation will play a significant role in achieving immigration reform this year.”
Rodriguez said his organization was “very comfortable” with the agreement.
“It will provide workers and employers with a sense of security,” Rodriguez said. “It gives an opportunity for workers to improve themselves.”
He noted that between 70 and 80 percent of farm workers are undocumented.
On the agreement negotiations, Conner said all three sides – senators, unions, and employers – came into the talks with different agendas.
“But we had the common goal that the status quo was unacceptable,” Conner said. “To get to this place, it took an act of compromise from all sides.”
Stenzel said the bill would help reduce labor shortages that have often resulted in “acre upon acre of fruits and vegetables left in the fields.”
The bill was offered by the so-called “Group of Eight” senators, including Schumer and Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., John McCain, R-Ariz., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. In addition, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., were heavily involved in drafting the farm worker provisions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the legislation for Friday and Monday. Many Republican senators, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., have insisted on holding several hearings.
In the House, a bipartisan group of representatives, who have been working on their own immigration package, applauded the Senate introduction in a statement today.
“Americans want to see the nation’s broken immigration system fixed, and they know it will take bipartisanship to solve this problem in a sensible and rational way,” the joint statement said. “We believe we will soon agree on a reasonable, common-sense plan to finally secure our borders and strengthen our economy with a tough but fair process that respects the rule of law so immigrants can contribute to our country.”
The statement was released by Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., John Carter, R-Texas, Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., Sam Johnson, R-Texas, Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and John Yarmuth, D-Ky.
Under the legislation, 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.
The legislation defines “agriculture” as: “includes the cultivation and tillage of the soil, dairying, the production, cultivation, growing, and harvesting of any agricultural or horticultural commodities, the raising of livestock, bees, fur-bearing animals, or poultry, and any practices (including any forestry or lumbering operations) performed by a farmer or on a farm. Term includes the handling, planting, drying packing, packaging, processing, freezing, or grading prior to delivery for storage of any agricultural or horticultural commodity in its unmanufactured state.”
Under the bill, the new agricultural worker program would establish 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 legislation, 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 legislation 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.
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.”
On E-Verify, Conner noted that enforcement for agricultural producers would be at the “end of the line,” giving them time to adjust to the new visa program.
Separately, Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union (NFU), said today that his group was “pleased” with the package.
“NFU’s member-adopted, grassroots policy urges that ‘our immigration system must be flexible enough to address the needs of businesses while protecting the interests of workers,’” Goule said. “The legislative language, as unveiled by the bipartisan group of senators who have been advancing immigration reform policy, achieves those goals.”
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