By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON -- The United Farm Workers and several ag organizations are backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate April 17, saying its provisions would ensure a legal, stable agricultural workforce.
The UFW and farm groups, and sometimes the farm groups themselves, have often been in disagreement about how foreign workers should be handled, but this time they came together to fix what National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jerry Kozak described as "a broken immigration system."
If Congress passes the bill and President Barack Obama signs it, foreign-born laborers "can work in fields without worrying about getting deported and they can be reunited with their families," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said during a joint press conference with Western Growers, the United Fresh Produce Association and NMPF.
"The industry most impacted by undocumented workers is agriculture," Rodriguez said. "It behooves us all to maintain a viable industry here in the U.S."
Tom Nassif, CEO of Western Growers, said the union and the ag groups worked through many difficult issues, including wage rates for future workers, legalization of our existing workforce, worker protections and caps on a future visa program.
"Each side had to make compromises and while this agreement doesn't do everything each of us wants, each side has come away with an agreement that we can support and that goes a long way in addressing our many concerns," he said.
The larger immigration bill, which covers issues such as visas for highly educated engineers, was written by a group of eight senators including Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio joined Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to write the agriculture labor section, which is called the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act or AgJOBS.
Feinstein, who has worked on AgJOBS for years, is generally credited as the leader of the ag group, but the farm leaders also gave credit to Rubio, a Cuban-American for whom the success or failure of the bill could determine whether he is taken seriously as a Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
The measure would allow current undocumented farm workers to obtain what is known as a "blue card" if they have worked 100 days in agriculture in 2011 and 2012 and choose to remain in agriculture.
After five years, those who have paid all taxes, not been convicted of a serious crime, and are willing to pay a $400 fine to be eligible adjust to a permanent "green card" legal status. Their spouses and minor children would also be allowed to adjust their status.
It would also create a new agricultural guestworker visa program under which some workers would receive a portable, employment-based visa that would allow them to change jobs and others would receive a contract-based visa that would replace the current H-2A program. The H-2A program would sunset after the new guestworker visa program is operational.
Under the contract program, visas could be for as long as three years and employers would have to provide housing or a housing allowance.
The visas will be at least a year long, which was a key factor for the dairy industry, which needs workers year round. The program appears to cover all workers on farms and ranches, but does not cover meat plant workers, who come under another section of the larger bill.
It would also set wages for different occupational categories. The four major job categories would be crop workers, livestock workers, sorters and graders who work in packing houses, and equipment operators.
Employers will be required to verify the legal status of their employees, but Nassif said he believes the verification program will be workable. The agriculture secretary will be in charge of determining the number of workers needed.
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives CEO Chuck Conner said he believed that the county Farm Service Agency offices will help the secretary determine the need and keep track of the workers and that farm owners will be comfortable working with those offices. The Labor Department will still be in charge of enforcing rules on working conditions.
The unity of the farm groups and the UFW behind the agriculture provisions and the larger bill may give it the momentum to pass in the Senate, but the Republican-controlled House will still be a challenge. Some of the strongest critics of immigration reform are from rural districts in the center of the country where there are few foreign laborers.
U.S. Apple Association President and CEO Nancy Foster told Capital Press that the biggest job for the farm groups, which are united under the banner of the Ag Workforce Coalition, is to convince the American public that the workers are needed.
"Each apple must be picked by hand each fall when harvest occurs," Foster noted, adding that the industry needs 70,000 pickers.
Nonagriculture provisions of reform bill:
* Puts 11 million illegal immigrants in the country on a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship that would cost each $2,000 in fines plus additional fees.
* Would begin only after steps have been taken to secure the border, according to an outline of the measure.
* Creates new immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers, as well as a new "merit visa" aimed at bringing people with talents to the U.S.
* Requires employers to verify the status of their employees.