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Time to push for immigration reform, farm leader says

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

Manuel Cunha, head of the Nisei Farmers League, is urging growers to push for Congress to reform immigration law. If a new law isn't passed this year, it may be too late, he said.

PORTLAND — Manuel Cunha of the Nisei Farmers League urged Christmas tree growers to contact their congressman and push for immigration reform.

“You have got to be very strong on your congressman,” Cunha told the 55th annual Christmas Tree Fair and Trade Show Sept. 6 in Portland.

“(Tell them) you are doing to deal with immigration now,” he said. “You are going to deal with it once and for you. And you are going to deal with it in a comprehensive way. You are not going to piecemeal it.

“This is what your congressman needs to hear,” he said.

Cunha said the California-based farmers league and others involved in immigration reform hope to get a bill out of the U.S. House and into conference committee by the end of October or first of November.

“If we slip into next year, we could lose it all,” he said, “because we are getting toward an election year.”

The Senate passes its immigration bill June 28 by a 68-32 vote.

The Senate bill includes a revamped Agricultural Worker Program and an Agricultural Visa Program that allows eligible farmworkers to obtain legal status in the U.S. through a Blue Card Program.

“It’s not perfect,” Cunha said of the Senate bill, “but for agriculture, it’s the best we could ever get.”

The bill has the support of farm organizations, United Farm Workers and other farm labor groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, law enforcement and church groups, Cunha said.

Cunha said he hopes the House introduces its version of the immigration reform bill by mid-September and moves for a vote on it by mid-October.

“The House version is a wreck,” he said.

“It doesn’t deal with any workers that are here,” he said. “It doesn’t deal with residency. It doesn’t deal with citizenship. It doesn’t take H-2A and get rid of it and have a new guest worker program.”

But, he said, the idea is to get the bill out of the House to the conference committee, where the Senate bill is waiting.

In addition to creating a Blue Card Program for eligible undocumented farmworkers, the Senate bill dramatically improves on the current Guest Worker, or H2A, Program.

“The old H-2A will be there yet,” Cunha said, “but we will have a new Guest Worker Program in which the farmer will be able to sign a one-page attestation versus 300 pages (of documents required in the old Guest Worker Program).

Also, he said, farmers will report to the USDA under the new Guest Worker Program, not the U.S. Department of Labor.

“That is a big change,” he said. “(The USDA) knows our industry. The department of Labor doesn’t even know where our food comes from.”

The new Guest Worker Program, as outlined in the Senate bill, includes two basic elements, Cunha said: An at-will element, in which workers are brought in by a consortium of farm interests and can move from employer to employer; and a contract-based visa program, similar to the current migrant system.

“The at-will portion allows tremendous flexibility between growers,” he said.

The Senate bill also includes incentives to encourage undocumented workers to apply for the new Agricultural Visa Program, he said, including a streamlined process for those applying for citizenship.

In closing, Cunha suggested that in addition to contacting their congressmen, Christmas tree growers pressure their church groups and sheriffs to push for immigration reform.

“Congress isn’t responsive to farmers,” he said. “But they are dang well responsive to the attorney generals, the sheriffs and they are responsive to the churches.”



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