WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2014 - Even as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has seemingly pulled the rug out from under any chance of immigration reform being approved this year, agricultural stakeholders are continuing to urge lawmakers to create a plan for a stable, legal farm workforce.

Representatives from the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), among several other groups, will be knocking on lawmakers’ doors this month to push for reform legislation.

Boehner said getting any kind of immigration reform package through the House would be difficult because of a general distrust among Republicans of President Obama in enforcing immigration law.

Still, some farmers have been canvassing the Hill to share their stories about the difficulties in keeping workers.

“I’m a farmer. I deal with people. I feed people. I employ people,” Michigan-based farmer Russell Constanza said during a recent AWC event. “I can’t get this job done without people. You can’t mechanize fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Constanza said the lack of legal status, not low wages, is the big issue for the hundreds of thousands of undocumented farm workers. “My most important asset is my employees,” Constanza said. “I have people making over $1,000 a week.”

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said lawmakers have to face the choice between importing labor or importing food. “Most of us don’t want to see all our food imported,” Gasperini said.

He said the main problem is that 75 percent of farm workers are falsely documented, and that farm owners worry constantly about being audited by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

 “Every time you get audited, it’s like a lottery,” Gasperini said. “You’ve done your paperwork, but when ICE comes, the good news is there’s no fine. But the bad news is you lose your workforce.”

New York-based farmer Maureen Marshall said she was audited last year and lost 92 employees out of 100. “They could not provide proper documentation [to ICE],” she said, even though all had been referred to her farm by the New York state labor department. She said many farmers have been caught in this “Catch 22” between federal and state government.

Many lawmakers have advocated mandatory use of the federal government’s employment authorization system, E-Verify, to find legal workers. However, Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at AFBF, said the agriculture sector has experienced “a lot of disruption in states” that have mandated its use. “There are improvements that need to be made,” Boswell said, but noted AFBF can support E-Verify “if we have a solution to a reliable source of labor.”

Gasperini said E-Verify does not work with field hires. “You need an immediate answer,” he said. “You have a lot of field workers that work a day or two and by the time you get a ‘no-match’ they move on.” He said the system only tells if the social security number is real, but cannot prove the number belongs to the worker.

Boehner’s latest comments on immigration reform came after House Republican leadership released a list of principles that could lead to a pathway to legal status for undocumented farm workers. The one-page list stressed border security and better enforcement of current laws.

“None of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced,” according to the document.

Thus far, House Republicans have been encouraging a piecemeal approach to immigration with the support of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Addressing undocumented farm workers, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 1773) in June. Goodlatte’s bill would replace the existing H-2A agricultural visa program with a new H-2C program - but without a path to legal status.

By contrast, a 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. Both bills would mandate use of E-Verify by farming operations.

In coordination with increased lobbying efforts on the Hill, AFBF recently released a study that found that an immigration policy focusing mainly on enforcement could raise food prices over five years by an additional 5 percent to 6 percent and would cut the nation’s food and fiber production by as much as $60 billion. With enforcement only, the study said the agriculture sector could lose more than 525,000 workers. The report, “Gauging the Farm Sector’s Sensitivity to Immigration Reform,” conducted by World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services, said the best scenario for farm labor reform is one that includes immigration enforcement, a redesigned guest worker program and the opportunity for skilled laborers currently working in agriculture to earn an adjustment of status.


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