WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2016Farmers who depend on a stable supply of foreign-born and often undocumented laborers to work in dairies and pick produce are going to continue their long-fought battle for immigration reform, according to industry representatives.

There was a lot of heated rhetoric over illegal immigrants during the presidential campaign, much of it coming from the eventual victor, Republican Donald Trump. But that doesn’t mean farmers should give up trying to persuade Congress to allow farmers to keep their labor force, officials including Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Wednesday.

Boswell and others took part in a webinar hosted by the American Dairy Coalition to address immigration reform.

“I don’t think the rhetoric necessarily helped the substantive, legal reform issues, and that’s something that we’re going to have to work really hard to educate President-elect Trump and his administration and any new members of Congress on,” Boswell said.

Farms across the country are desperate for labor, but most U.S. citizens often aren’t interested in farm labor, and the existing H-2A temporary worker visa program is widely viewed as too expensive, complicated and unreliable.

“It’s no secret that agriculture relies on a foreign-born labor force,” Boswell said. “Estimates show conservatively that at least half of that work force are unauthorized to work in the United States, and those workers are experienced and valuable and, from Farm Bureau’s perspective, we need to ensure that those workers can remain in the United States and work legally. We also recognize that there are shortages and that we need to fill gaps and that those gaps are going to be filled by foreign-born workers as well. We’d love to hire American-born local workers, but the reality is … those workers aren’t showing up at the farms.”

That’s why it’s the number-one concern in the dairy industry, said Laurie Fischer, president of the American Dairy Coalition. Fischer stressed that despite low milk prices and rising concerns over environmental controls, labor is the issue that worries farmers the most.

She said she recently asked a group of Wisconsin dairy farmers if anyone had plans to expand their operations and answer no because they “they don’t know who’s going to milk the cows.”

The Farm Bureau continues to push for an agriculture immigration reform bill that would be run by the USDA and dispense temporary, three-year visas specifically for farm laborers, but there are other solutions being worked on by organizations like the Cato Institute.

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for Cato, said an increasingly popular idea that the group is shopping around on Capitol Hill would make states individually responsible for immigrant work visas. The proposal would allow 500,000 new three-year labor visas every year that could be renewed and could be given to undocumented immigrants already working on U.S. farms.

Nowrasteh said Cato doesn’t yet have a lawmaker willing to sponsor the plan in a bill, but it has gotten support from key state leaders and conservative groups like Americans for Tax Reform.

Support for immigration reform as well as creating a national E-verify system to validate the status of workers is strong in Congress, said Jon Baselice, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. However, he stressed that if a national E-verify system were implemented before illegal immigrant workers were protected, farms and other businesses would be hurt.

“Mandatory E-verify is something that is definitely on the list of things to do on (Trump’s) agenda, but that requires legislation,” Baselice said. He stressed that the Chamber would not support such a bill without provisions to protect farm workers.


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