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Agriculture needs more than DACA, farm groups say

As President Trump and congressional leaders wrestle over the budget and DACA, labor-intensive agriculture desires broader immigration reform.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on January 4, 2018 10:38AM

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

Courtesy Washington Growers League

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

Less than 2 percent of the nation’s approximate 795,000 DACA recipients work in agriculture, forest and fisheries industries, according to a spokesman for the Agricultural Workforce Coalition.

That estimate underscores that agriculture needs immigration reform beyond just renewing DACA (deferred deportation of illegal immigrants who came as children), said Justin Darisse, AWC spokesman and vice president of communications for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

“If Congress takes any action, we hope that they take up more than just DACA. We have continued to impress on policy makers that labor-intensive agriculture faces an unprecedented crisis in finding workers and that it is important for public policy to consider both the current and future labor needs of ag employers,” Darisse said.

Given political dynamics, any immigration related action is difficult, he said.

The coalition was formed in 2012 to support comprehensive immigration reform and includes NCFC and 11 other active members including the American Farm Bureau Federation and 96 supportive agricultural organizations.

The coalition cites agricultural labor shortages as the reason to provide legal work status for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. and to improve or replace the H-2A-visa guestworker program with a market-based program that meets year-round needs. The coalition supports stronger border enforcement while improving worker flow.

Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, said most likely DACA will get “hyper politicized” and then dropped in favor of another stop-gap budget measure.

DACA has minimal impact on agriculture but could be a open the door for legislation also addressing ag guestworker reform, E-verify (electronic employment eligibility) and border security, Wicker said.

A month ago, Mike Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League in Yakima, said he was optimistic DACA renewal would pass in a budget deal by the end of December. Now congressional leaders are working toward a Jan. 19 budget deadline. Gempler is less hopeful of resolution, noting President Donald Trump’s insistence DACA renewal be accompanied by funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and greater U.S. immigration enforcement while Democrats remain opposed to both.

“There are people on both sides of this issue willing to shut down the government (for lack of a budget deal). It wouldn’t surprise me if that happens,” Gempler said.

As for broader immigration reform, Gempler said that in general little progress is made in election years but that sometimes strange things happen quickly and that agricultural groups are ready to work on any opportunity that arises.

Gempler said while there is appreciation for House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte’s immigration bill, HR 4092, there is not widespread agricultural support for it as is. The bill replaces the H-2A-visa program with a new H-2C-visa, but there are growers who would like to keep H-2A in some form, Gempler said.

The bill imposes mandatory E-verify without work permits for thousands of illegal workers but requires them to return to Mexico and reapply for entry.

“I think that would cause a shortage of at least 500,000 workers in the industry because there’s a cap. It’s unrealistic to expect people who have lived here 20 to 30 years to go back and reapply. It may be intended to drive people out and that’s not in our best interest,” he said.

Giving legal status to workers, maintaining H-2A and adding a new alternative like H-2C would be attractive to the industry, he said.

Wicker said Goodlatte’s bill is the vehicle for ag guestworker reforms in the House and that the North Carolina Growers Association is proud to be part of a national coalition supporting it.


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