Having been a driving force behind the Senate’s earlier introduction of immigration reform, on Wednesday afternoon (April 17) a broad coalition of agricultural interests convened to explain and back the legislation. Adding to the Agriculture Workforce Coalition’s muscle was the participation of the United Farm Workers Union (under the AFL-CIO umbrella), which supports the Senate bill. Companion legislation is yet to be introduced in the House.

Some 11 million undocumented workers currently reside in the United States.Asked how many of those are working in agriculture, “the estimates are between 50,000 and 70,000 workers are in this country under (the H2-A visa program),” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “We’ve described that as a very difficult, cumbersome program that producers are not using. Therefore, this bill does phase us away from H2-A very, very rapidly. It would be replaced with the new, negotiated guest worker program.”

“My understanding is there are approximately two million farm workers in the country,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association.“Approximately 1.2 million are here working under false documents.”

Among the key agriculture-specific parts of the bill:

  • The USDA would administer the new program and farmers wanting to hire non-U.S. citizens would register annually with the Farm Service Agency.
  • For the program’s first four years, just over 112,000 annual agricultural guest worker visas would be issued. Under an “emergency authority” the Secretary of Agriculture would be able to tweak that number based on worker shortages. Beginning in year five, the secretary would be the one to actually set a cap.
  • Workers would be paid a standard wage based on the job they hold.
  • The new agricultural guest worker program would contain two options: “at will” and “contract based.”

The at will option would allow workers -- who would be provided lodging or a housing stipend from authorized employers -- to work a specific job under a three-year visa. The workers would be able to move jobs between authorized employers.

The contract-based option, also under a three year visa, would allow workers to enter the country for a specific job under contract. Again, housing would be provided by the employer.

  • Eligibility for a “Blue Card” would be extended to undocumented workers currently in the United States.

The card would be available to those who can prove they have worked in agriculture for 100 days between 2011 and the end of 2012. The worker would then be required to pay fines, make sure back taxes are paid, keep a clean law enforcement record and wait a minimum of five years before becoming eligible for a Green Card.

Conner was unable to provide the number of workers who would be eligible for a Blue Card.

There are great concerns about the introduction of the program at a time of high U.S. unemployment. What happens if current undocumented agriculture workers pursue other occupations and compete for jobs with U.S. citizens? Will legalization of the current workforce result in higher agricultural wages?

“The reason most of our workers still work in agriculture is because they’re being treated fairly,” said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association.“There are many laws – state and federal – that protect the farm workers. Some of them are unionized and protected by unions like the United Farm Workers (Union).

“We have negotiated specific wages for the new visa holders for various job categories in agriculture. Obviously, that will always have an impact on U.S. workers and on ‘Blue Card’ workers, also.”

The agreement that was negotiated, said president of United Farm Workers Arturo Rodriguez, “will definitely provide farm workers in this nation with a sense of security, as well as the employers. They’ll have professional, skilled workers to continue working for them.

“It does provide opportunities for workers to improve their situations if they decide to do so. It’s their decision.

“I’d further emphasize, we feel very good about the agreement we reached for the employers. It took a lot of discussion, a lot of debate over the last few weeks and months. We’re very comfortable with what’s been arrived at, at this point.”

Conner agreed. “It’s a balanced agreement. Much of the discussions came down to wages and the cap on the number of workers that come through the guest worker program.”