By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO - The leader of California's largest farm organization says the immigration legislation now before Congress must provide the flexibility needed by growers and their employees.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, praised the so-called "Gang of Eight" U.S. senators for making "the agricultural workforce a priority" by unveiling the legislation.
But he said improvements in the immigration system should account for the unpredictable, seasonal labor needs on farms in California and throughout the nation.
"Everyone agrees that the current system is broken," Wenger said in a statement on April 17. "It doesn't work for farmers or for people who want to come to the United States to work on farms. An improved agricultural immigration system will enhance border security and assure steady supplies of American-grown food."
Wenger said it's important that farmers be able to hire people when they're needed, and for employees to be able to move freely from crop to crop and area to area as harvests shift. He said rules should be straightforward and simple to implement.
The four Democratic and four Republican authors of the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013" were putting the finishing touches on the legislation before formally filing it early April 17.
The measure would put millions who are in the U.S. illegally on a 13-year path to citizenship, while toughening border security requirements, mandating that all employers check the legal status of workers, and allowing tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country with new visa programs.
Wenger anticipates that farmers will be required to verify employee eligibility through the E-Verify system, which he said makes it particularly important for legislators to include a system that recognizes the need for a stable, legal agricultural workforce.
The bill comes after nearly two-thirds of farmers in a CFBF survey last fall said they had trouble finding enough workers to help them tend and harvest crops last year. Among growers with labor-intensive crops such as tree fruits, vegetables, table grapes, raisins and berries, 71 percent reported employee shortages.
Wenger said farmers have already reported similar problems this year.