He didn’t mention the farm bill, but President Barack Obama renewed focus on another important issue for agriculture during his annual State of the Union address last night. Obama urged movement on comprehensive immigration reform legislation - an issue he initially pledged to address during his first term - which could include a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented farm workers.

“Let’s get immigration reform done this year,” Obama said. “If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system.”

House leadership has so far encouraged a piece-meal approach to immigration reform with the support of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and the committee’s approval of the Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 1773). The bill would replace the existing H-2A agricultural visa program with a new H-2C program - but without a path to legal status. The bill proposes to allow up to 500,000 temporary agricultural laborers into the United States per year. The visa would allow workers to stay in the nation for up to 18 months, as opposed to the maximum of one year issued to H-2A visa holders.

The Senate-passed bill (S. 744) would allow undocumented farm workers to become eligible for an immigrant visa status called a “blue card.” Under the bill, blue-card holders could apply for lawful permanent resident status after five years if they have continued to work in agriculture, paid their taxes, and pay a fine.

Obama said independent economists say immigration reform would grow the economy and shrink deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said, after the address, that Obama should listen to “new and different ideas” from House Republicans to improve immigration.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization welcomed Obama’s call to move immigration reform.

“Many farmers rely on an immigrant labor force, and, without reform, growers will begin to plant less labor-intensive crops or go off shore,” Stallman said. “Simply put, either we import our labor or we import our food."

The National Farmers Union also applauded the President’s focus on immigration.

“Immigration reform is critical to farmers and ranchers across the country,” noted NFU President Roger Johnson. “I hope Congress takes the president’s sentiments to heart and makes comprehensive immigration reform its next priority. This ought to be a priority for liberals, moderates and conservatives alike, as it will reduce the deficit by $1 trillion dollars in two decades.”

National Corn Growers Association President Martin Barbre said, “It was great to hear President Obama talk about the importance of an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policy. And you can’t have such a policy without biofuels. So, we call on his Administration to back away from its irresponsible proposal to reduce the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program that has done much to promote energy independence, restore jobs in rural America, and clear the air.

“Likewise, we join the President in calling for a ‘year of action’ – starting with the immediate passage and signing of the 2014 farm bill that just came out of conference committee this week. It will help feed hungry Americans and provide needed stability to American agriculture. And then, Congress can rebuild our sorely outdated waterway infrastructure and move Trade Promotion Authority forward, as the President requested. There's plenty to do in a ‘year of action’ that will help our economy recover.”


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