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.”

Questions linger

Pushed on the possibility of current farm workers leaving the field for other professions, Conner admitted the issue was “very, very sensitive during negotiations. … There’s a strong incentive program for workers (to stay) but, at the end of the day, we don’t know how many will opt to do other things. That’s where the guest worker program became very important for the workforce coalition…

“We believe the compromise has the number of potential guest workers to backfill for (any) loss of … of the current domestic workforce in agriculture.”

Conner pointed to the aforementioned emergency authority available for the Secretary of Agriculture, “to take in the event that we’re a little off on the numbers. We all recognize the secretary isn’t just going to do this on a whim. But with good, sound data and if there’s a need because of a shortage of workers, he has the ability to lift the guest worker caps to meet demand.”

Rodriguez: “There are a lot of provisions that will encourage farm workers to stay in the agriculture industry. First, they’ll have the opportunity to gain permanent residency status within a five-year period. … There will (also, due to wages) be an enticement or incentive for farm workers to stay in agriculture and look to this as more of an occupation and profession as opposed to an entry-level job.”

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How might the legislation affect the growth various agricultural sectors?

In Florida, said Mike Stuart, president and CEO of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, “we face a lot of international competitive pressures and have for quite some time. … A lot of the discussion during the negotiations related to ensuring the development of an agreement that would allow us to be competitive into the future. In the discussions, I wasn’t so much concerned about the very short-term but I was concerned about the long-term…

“Five, 10, 15, 20 years from now, we’ve structured a program that will allow (fruit and vegetable) industries in a competitive environment … will have access to ‘blue card’ workers, particularly during the transitional period. Then, under the new visa program, they’ll have access to a workforce that … particularly for vegetable commodities in Florida, a very competitive environment with countries like Mexico and others.”

Rodriguez praised many aspects of the U.S. system. “I think the (U.S.) ag industry in comparison to other countries is, in my estimation, far beyond. The infrastructure here, the protections here for American consumers … does protect the industry as much as it does workers and consumers...

“Because the workforce here is highly professional, they’re very skilled workers and pick with a lot of quality and high productivity rates. It’s far more than what you see outside the United States. For that reason, it behooves us all to maintain a viable agricultural industry.”

The politics

As for political support and the manner the legislation will be handled, the program advocates – obviously reticent to upset any lawmakers -- were unwilling to speculate much.

“In past efforts to pass immigration reform, agriculture hasn’t always been united,” Conner allowed. “That’s a completely different picture this time…

“There will certainly be a number of members of the Senate and, perhaps, even more in the House that may look askance at some of the issues included in this bill. I think they are going to listen to us, though.

“This is a crisis in American agriculture, a crisis for all of us in production. It’s also a crisis for the workers and for the consumers who expect us to be able to deliver American fruits and vegetables or dairy products.

“For those in the Senate who may not instinctively be on board, we believe agriculture will be a key to passing broad immigration reform. If you look at where the politics are, it will be people in this room who really make the difference with some of the swing votes.”

Reaching agreement on the legislation required, “an act of compromise on virtually every issue we discussed,” said Conner. “This problem has been festering for 30 years. The (coalition) was willing to make those necessary compromises (as were the other entities involved).”

“The very fact we’re here today jointly sends a strong message as to the way we all look at this,” said Rodriguez.

Queried on immigration reform opponents’ demands that U.S. borders be properly closed before the plan is fully enacted, Conner wouldn’t take the bait. The coalition, he insisted, stuck strictly to agricultural issues during negotiations. “We weren’t in any way, either directly or indirectly, engaged in the broader, comprehensive debate – and border security is a huge component of that. That isn’t a track we ran on.”

“We’ve seen the border closing for the past five to 10 years,” added Stenzel. “We’re not seeing an increased flow – or even a flow that stays current – in terms of more undocumented workers coming into the United States. How Congress will determine border security, what standards they’ll put forward, is beyond us.”

What would the Department of Labor’s role be in under the legislation?

The DOL, “will continue to have responsibility for workplace enforcement under the Fair Labor Standards Act and Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act,” said Stuart. “That doesn’t change under the agreement.”

Further, the Department of Homeland Security would have a role, “in terms of granting the visas. So, there will be three agencies that continue to be involved. But (the USDA) would have the primary responsibility for the administration of the program.” 

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