By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
A bill to reform immigration policy introduced in the Senate Wednesday is being backed by dairymen.
The bill provides three things Idaho Dairymen's Association has pushed for all along, said Charlie Garrison, a D.C. lobbyist for IDA, Western United Dairymen and other dairy groups.
The dairymen's first priority in immigration issues is legalization of the current workforce, and the proposed legislation provides that, he said.
It also provides for year-round labor and a guestworker program for future needs, he said.
The House has not introduced immigration reform, he said, but is working on legislation that reflects the needs of agriculture and more specifically dairy producers.
IDA is pleased with the Senate's bill, which at first blush looks very doable for the dairy industry, said Bob Naerebout, IDA executive director.
Most importantly, it provides a pathway for current workers who might not be here legally to become legal, he said.
It's most important for the current workforce to be out of the shadows and be here legally and permanently, he said.
There is also a long approach, 13 years, for those interested workers to become U.S. citizens, putting them in the same position as other foreigners who seek citizenship, he said
He doesn't have any hard numbers on what percentage of the ag workforce is here illegally. There have been audits that have come in both high and low, but USDA pegs it as high as 75 percent to 80 percent of all agricultural workers, he said.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, recently said 90 percent of dairy workers in Idaho are in the country illegally.
Labrador is part of a bipartisan group of House members that is working on immigration reform. IDA feels confident that with his participation, dairymen's needs will be part of whatever the House produces, Garrison said.
Western United Dairymen is also pleased with the Senate bill. The organization is one of the founding members of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which worked long and hard on immigration negotiations, said Michael Marsh WUD CEO.
Immigration reform is probably more important to California's dairymen than the farm bill, he said.
Particularly appealing for the dairy industry is the proposed blue card program, which would allow current illegal workers without a conviction for a felony or violent crime to pay a $400 penalty and continue working, he said.
WUD is also pleased with the program for future workers. But it is also concerned with a cap on foreign workers being discussed in the House. If it comes in lower than needed, it will be unworkable, he said.
WUD is hopeful immigration reform will make it to the president, be signed before Congress' August recess and move a big issue off the table, Marsh said.
If immigration reform is to happen anytime soon, it has to be this year. It's not going to happen in next year's election year for all House seats and one-third of the Senate seats, he said.
"We don't need election-year politics clouding the picture and opportunity for getting something done," he said.
While IDA is happy with the Senate bill, it has no use for another bill aimed at foreign dairy workers introduced in the House last week by three representatives from the Northeast.
That bill, the H2-A Improvement Act, H.R 1444, would give dairy producers access to the program and allow employment to foreign workers for up to six years.
IDA has absolutely no interest in H2-A. That program needs to be replaced for all of agriculture, and it's time to totally overhaul immigration policy, Naerebout said.
Marsh said WUD has no position on the H2-A proposal but the H2-A program has never worked for dairymen. Dairymen would prefer something more comprehensive, and H2-A would go away with the senate bill.
Garrison doesn't see much momentum behind the H2-A proposal. If Congress is going to act it will be on immigration reform from the gangs of eight in both the Senate and the House, he said.