A commonsense immigration reform bill, as recently passed by the U.S. Senate, offers a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million currently undocumented residents, provides a stable workforce for agriculture and other industries and maintains strong border security.
“We urge Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” says Judith Canales, Texas State Executive Director, USDA-Farm Service Agency, in College Station.
Canales, appointed to her current position back in May, encouraged farmers, ranchers and others involved in agriculture to take advantage of the Congressional recess to contact their representatives and urge them to support immigration reform.
She said the “pathway to citizenship is not automatic.” Undocumented persons would be required to work, pay taxes and “move to the back of the line,” to obtain U.S. citizenship. “That’s part of the agreement,” she said. Folks who want to stay have to abide by these rules. “It is important for agriculture to have the stability,” that commonsense immigration reform will offer, she said in an interview with Southwest Farm Press.
She said a temporary worker program also offers significant benefits to Texas farmers and ranchers. “The temporary program includes a three-year visa that allows an immigrant worker to stay year-round, as long as they continue to work in agriculture. Secretary Vilsack says this is commonsense and is good for workers and employers who need the stable workforce.”
Immigrant labor makes significant contribution to the Texas economy, she said. “Reports indicate that agriculture depends on immigrant labor (some undocumented) to do the important and necessary work in agriculture.” The work is challenging and farmers and ranchers have difficulty finding workers who are willing, available and “authorized” to perform the many tasks involved in raising food and fiber.
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The temporary worker program would replace the H-2A program, a system that has been roundly criticized for the burdensome amount of paperwork and regulations required to secure foreign workers. USDA and FSA would be involved in administering the new program. “We have to develop a more streamlined approach for employee requirements,” Canales said. “USDA will play a greater role in implementing the farm worker program. USDA is aware of ag industry needs and the needs of agricultural workers.”
The Department of Labor has been in charge of the H-2A program and “will continue to be involved,” Canales said. “But we will play a role.”
Reform, as outlined in the Senate bill, will “modernize how we do the job of documenting workers,” she added. “It will help us provide legal standing and it will help employers secure a reliable, dependable workforce. It also gives workers an opportunity to participate in a legal labor system.”
Agriculture and other industries employ large numbers of undocumented workers, out of necessity and not necessarily choice. “One of the most difficult issues for agriculture has been to find legal, capable workers.”
A stable workforce, including the workers employed through temporary visas and those who seek the pathway to citizenship, provides significant economic benefits, Canales said. “The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that the Senate bill would reduce the deficit over the next 20 years by nearly $850 billion, and the Social Security Administration estimates that this immigration bill would add nearly $300 billion to the Social Security system in the next decade.”
Without a stable workforce, “America’s record agricultural productivity will decline,” Canales said. “In Texas, for example, eliminating the immigrant labor force would cost more than $180.1 million in short-term production losses.”
But sound immigration reform would do more than prevent losses. “It will grow the economy.”
Border security will not be jeopardized with the Senate’s bill, Canales said. In fact, it “would put in place the toughest border security plan that America has ever seen.” She said the Obama Administration has already made significant improvements in border security with increased arrests and increased federal presence along the border. “President Obama has proven his support for strong border security.”
She said securing the border and maintaining trade are closely related. “Mexico is Texas’ number one trading partner.”
Canales said agriculture depends on immigrant labor “to pick crops, work in packing sheds, milk cows” and perform other necessary tasks. Under the current system, finding authorized labor to perform those jobs is difficult under what many consider an antiquated immigration system and an overly burdensome guest worker program. The U.S. Senate’s proposal, Canales said, goes a long way toward modernizing both without sacrificing trade or border security. Undocumented residents have an opportunity to work their way to citizenship, and workers who plan to return to their homelands could work for longer periods before returning home.
“We remain hopeful that when the House of Representatives reconvenes in September they will consider this commonsense approach.” She said they also need to pass a farm bill. “We are at the crux,” she said.