Agricultural groups concerned with immigration reform are increasing their attention on the issue as Congress begins to consider legislation.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security held a hearing Feb. 4 on The Legal Workforce Act, HR 1772 filed during the last session of Congress, that would mandate use of E-Verify, an electronic record check system, to confirm legal status of prospective employees.

Western United Dairymen, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and other members of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition called on Congress to address agricultural labor needs before implementing E-Verify.

Chuck Connor, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, testified to the subcommittee that agriculture will oppose a stand alone E-Verify bill that doesn’t address the agricultural workforce crisis.

He said 70 percent of hired farmworkers lack proper authorization to work in the U.S. despite providing authentic-looking documents to employers. He said the only foreign guestworker program available, the H-2A program, is so cumbersome and divorced from market needs that it provides only 7 percent of workers needed.

Immigration reform was discussed at the annual meeting of the National Council of Agricultural Employers at the Hotel Monaco in Washington, D.C., Feb. 3-5.

Mike Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League, Yakima, Wash., who attended the NCAE meeting, said he thinks immigration bills likely will start in piecemeal fashion in the House in the next two to three weeks with a renewal of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s guestworker bill from last session. Border enforcement and E-Verify probably will be separate bills, he said.

“While we aren’t happy about a piecemeal approach, it can be done if there’s political support from leadership to pass it all together,” he said.

“The agricultural industry is interested in having guestworker reform and some provision of legal status for the existing workforce,” he said. “If those things can’t be accomplished in the bills, we would probably oppose the bills.”

Gempler said he doubts Congress and the president can come together on the issue enough to enact legislation but that he hopes he is surprised.

He said he thinks some Republicans want to get something done but are vexed as to strategy to get the votes they need.

“We’re making our presence known to let representatives know time is short for us. It’s a very big priority for us,” he said.

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