The immigration-reform bill now before the United States Senate includes a program for agricultural employers and employees intended to replace a current guestworker program that most Western farmers consider unworkable.
"For farmers in California and everywhere else, the key will be providing a program that allows the flexibility we need to respond to constant changes in harvest timing," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. "There's no doubt the current system doesn't work. Both farmers and farm employees need a straightforward immigration program that accounts for the unpredictability of farm work."
The agricultural portion of the immigration legislation introduced in the Senate last week includes two critical principles: a "Blue Card" program for experienced workers, and establishment of an agricultural visa program for future guestworkers.
CFBF Federal Policy Division Manager Rayne Pegg said that under the Blue Card program, experienced agricultural workers can obtain legal immigration status by satisfying criteria such as passing a background check, paying a fine and proving that applicable taxes have been paid. Blue Card workers would be required to continue to work in agriculture before having the opportunity to qualify for a green card.
In addition, the bill would establish a new visa program that allows agricultural employers to hire guestworkers, either under contract or at will. Visa holders would be able to work in the U.S. under a three-year visa and work for any designated agricultural employer. The program would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The number of three-year visas would be capped at 112,333 per year; in year three, the total number of visas issued could not exceed 337,000. After five years, the cap for the number of visas would be determined by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The bill would establish 2016 wage rates for program participants in different categories: farmworkers and laborers for crop, nursery and greenhouse, $9.64 per hour; graders and sorters, $9.84 per hour; dairy and livestock, $11.37 per hour; equipment operators, $11.87 per hour; wages for other occupational categories may be determined by the Secretary of Agriculture.
Should the bill become law, Pegg said, it is expected that the program would not be fully implemented until 2015 or 2016.
She said the agricultural portion of the immigration bill resulted from lengthy negotiations among agricultural employers, the United Farm Workers and senators.
"It took a number of long days, weeks and months to come to this agreement, but it shows how critical it is that we address the lack of available workers in agriculture and create a program that does not duplicate the current system that is unworkable for the realities of farming," Pegg said. "It provides security measures to properly identify those currently in the country who are not documented, and determines whether or not they should be able to stay in the country to work in agriculture."
San Luis Obispo County farmer Carlos Castaneda, who is also a farm labor contractor who employs workers for vegetables, nurseries, vineyards and tree crops, said introduction of the immigration bill "shows that both sides of the aisle are working together to solve a problem that hasn't been addressed since the 1986 (Immigration Reform and Control Act)."
Castaneda said the 1986 law "never really solved" the immigration problem, "but this (legislation) has the potential to solve things. It is not perfect, but any bill that actually has a chance of passing both the House and the Senate is not going to be perfect."
Monte Lake, a Washington, D.C., attorney for the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform and one of the chief negotiators, said that for those farm employers who work under contract with their employees, the bill would provide "the security of a tie to the workers for a specific period, so it is a program that meets all of the needs of agriculture in that regard, as well as provides for year-round workers like those working in dairy, livestock, mushrooms and other crops that have not been covered by any program."
Entitled the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Reform Act," the bill was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators that came to be known as the Gang of Eight.
A group called the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which CFBF and the American Farm Bureau Federation are members, collectively developed a set of principles to define an immigration program for agriculture. AFBF President Bob Stallman called the agreement "extremely important for the future of agriculture."
An immigration-reform bill has not yet been introduced in the House of Representatives.
"Our next steps will have to be working with our congressional representatives so they understand the importance of tackling this issue with legislation that addresses the issues in the farming community," Pegg said. "This bill does that by reviewing those currently here working in agriculture and providing them a blue card, while creating a visa program for a future flow of foreign workers. Other proposals have only dealt with either trying to fix the H-2A program or making it more difficult for those currently working in agriculture to continue to work in farming."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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