By DAN WHEAT
A cap on the number of foreign guestworker visas apparently agreed to by business and labor as part of comprehensive immigration reform would be "near-term disaster for agriculture," says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
However, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the affiliated Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which have been working on the reform package, "stress that what may work for general business should not be seen as appropriate or relevant for ag," Regelbrugge said.
Agricultural employers prefer no limits on the number of foreigners allowed to come into the country on visas to help grow and harvest crops, he said.
But for nonagricultural jobs the chamber and labor apparently have agreed to caps of 20,000 visas in the first year, 35,000 in the second year, 55,000 in the third and 75,000 in the fourth, Regelbrugge said.
After that a statistical formulation takes over, he said.
"Obviously for ag, we cannot determine what would be an appropriate need-based cap until we know how much of the current unauthorized workforce qualifies for and enters into blue card (work) status," Regelbrugge said.
"Even then there are significant uncertainties with respect to overall workforce, percent unauthorized, et cetera," he said.
Agriculture needs a need-based mechanism for determining caps as well as an emergency procedure for employers with unmet need, he said.
The Easter-eve agreement between the chamber and AFL-CIO and embraced by at least some of the eight senators working on the issue "is good news for momentum and adds to our own sense of urgency with respect to ag," Regelbrugge said.
"We continue to provide input to Senate leaders on elements of the agricultural piece, but elements remain in flux," said Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation.
It was premature to call the business-labor progress an agreement because issues remain in the broader non-ag visa program and any for ag, said another ag-industry source involved in the process.
Issues could be resolved in the next week or two but remain for ag wages, employer-paid housing and transportation, the source said.