By DAN WHEAT
A new U.S. Senate bill on immigration reform looks promising, leaders for agricultural labor reform say.
"We view this as very positive. There's still work to be done in the details as to what an agricultural guestworker program will look like but this is the first time in a long time that the environment for a bill has looked this good," Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Capital Press.
He said he expects the bill, announced by a bipartisan group of senators, will include work authorization for agricultural workers currently in the country illegally and either reforms to the H-2A guestworker program or a new program as called for by the Agricultural Workforce Coalition of which the Farm Bureau is a member.
AWC wants contract and at-will employment opportunities for workers under a new guestworker visa system.
Another leader in AWC, Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said the principles of the Senate bill are positive in that they recognize agriculture's unique challenges and needs in two ways.
"It calls for agriculture-specific provisions with respect to the current unauthorized workforce and it recognizes the need for a new, workable program to ensure future agricultural workers," Regelbrugge said.
"Lots of heavy lifting is ahead, but this is a positive," he said.
"I think there is general recognition that we need a more market-based (guestworker) program," said Kristi Boswell, American Farm Bureau director of congressional relations.
The new bill announced Jan. 28 is offered by Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
It is sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.
The bill's main components:
* A path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, contingent upon securing borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required.
* Reforming legal immigration to better recognize importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen families. This is aimed at retaining best and brightest immigrants, particularly upon college graduation.
* Create an effective employment verification system to prevent identity theft and end hiring of unauthorized workers.
* Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve workforce needs while protecting all workers.
Guestworker reform falls under the last point. An elaboration of that point in the senators' bill summary calls for creation of a workable program to meet the needs of agriculture, including dairy.
Employers could hire immigrants if they can demonstrate they were unsuccessful in recruiting Americans and it would not displace American workers. More lower-skilled immigrants would be allowed to come when the U.S. economy is creating jobs and fewer when it is not creating jobs. There would be strong labor protections and successful workers who contributed to communities over many years would be able to earn green cards.