WASHINGTON, April 29, 2014 - Getting Congress to approve comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for undocumented farm workers, should be “an easy lift,” but is being blocked by a small group of House Republican lawmakers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.

In a conference call with reporters, Vilsack said the lawmakers, who he did not name, fail to understand the economic impact that immigration reform could mean to the nation. “The reality is that American agriculture is not performing at its maximum due to an inadequate workforce,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack and the administration have been pushing hard to get the House to vote on any immigration bill so that it could be moved to conference with the Senate-passed legislation (S. 744). “The opportunity for immigration reform is now,” Vilsack said. “I am hopeful action will take place in the House.”

The Senate bill would allow undocumented farm workers to become eligible for an immigrant visa status called a “blue card.” Under the legislation, 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.

House Republican leadership has preferred a piecemeal approach to the immigration issue focusing mainly on border security, but lately, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has asserted that some kind of comprehensive immigration reform can be done this year.

Vilsack said many farmers have been scaling back production or moving their operations overseas. He said providing the agriculture sector with much-needed documented workers could reduce the deficit by as much as $850 billion over 20 years. Vilsack further noted that one out of 12 U.S. jobs are directly or indirectly connected to agriculture.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., have largely been standing in the way of movement of immigration reform legislation, supporters say. Vilsack said some lawmakers have argued they do not agree with the Senate package because they do not trust President Obama to enforce border security. “That is a lame explanation…a flimsy excuse,” Vilsack said.

Last week, 22 Republican senators, led by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., sent a letter to Obama challenging the administration’s ongoing immigration “enforcement review,” which they say may lead to fewer deportations.

“This ‘enforcement review’ is a clear attempt to circumvent our existing immigration laws. Instead, President Obama has decided that he’ll grant illegal immigrants amnesty now and enforce our laws later – maybe,” Vitter said. “The administration needs to get serious about enforcing the immigration laws currently on the books.”

In the House, Goodlatte wants to replace the existing H-2A agricultural visa program with a new H-2C program. His bill (H.R. 1773) 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 US for up to 18 months, as opposed to the maximum of one year issued to H-2A visa holders.

Vilsack was joined on the call by Virginia-based apple farmer Phil Glaize, who said has not been able to find enough workers for his harvest for the past three years. Glaize said overall apple production in Virginia is down from 10 million bushels a few years ago to 5 million bushels currently.

Glaize said his farm has experienced a dramatic shift in demographics in recent years with about 75 percent of his workforce comprised now of Latinos. He said that he requires I-9 forms to verify employment eligibility, but said, “My suspicion is that some are here illegally.”

The apple farmer said he has been in conversation with Cantor and Goodlatte. “We have been at odds over this,” Glaize said. “It seems there are a few people holding it up.”

Glaize said, without reform, “It’s anybody’s guess what would happen to the price of apples.”

Notably, Vilsack will deliver keynote remarks Tuesday at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educations Fund Awards Gala in Washington, D.C.


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