Organizations representing agricultural employers say they were heartened by President Donald Trump’s comments in favor of agricultural guestworkers at a campaign rally in Michigan.

“For the farmers, OK, it’s going to get good and we’re going to let your guestworkers come in because we’re going to have strong borders, but we have to have your workers come in,” Trump said in Washington, Mich., on April 28.

Unemployment is low enough that guestworkers can help on farms and then leave, the president said.

“Guestworkers. Don’t we agree? We have to have them. We have to have them,” Trump said.

The statement may have been the president’s most overt public comments in favor of agricultural guestworkers.

The U.S. Department of Labor approved 200,049 H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers for U.S. farms in fiscal year 2017, up 20.7 percent from 165,741 in 2016. They are needed to meet farmers’ needs in labor-intensive crops, agricultural organizations say.

“I haven’t seen the whole text of his comments, but if he’s recognizing that we need a workforce here that’s legal and available, that’s good news,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council for Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C.

NCAE continues to work with House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., and House leadership to “get a guestworker program that will really work for us and be something that could really help agriculture,” Marsh said.

Dan Fazio, executive director of WAFLA, formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, in Olympia, Wash., said Trump’s comments “are a very positive sign.”

WAFLA facilitated a large percentage of the 18,796 H-2A workers approved for Washington state in 2017.

“We’ve been working with the administration since they took office and when they told us to make a business case for the legal guestworker program. That case has been made,” Fazio said.

“If Congress fails to act on the Securing America’s Future Act (HR 4760 sponsored by Goodlatte), we feel confident the administration will undertake the necessary policy changes to make H-2A more usable,” Fazio said. Previously, he said those could be aimed at making the program less expensive and less cumbersome but would not be as permanent as congressional action.

Ryan Jacobsen, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, Fresno, Calif., said it’s great the president and his administration are recognizing the issue.

“We’ve been told they’ve been paying attention, but this put it out front and center. Guestworker is one part. We also have to deal with those (illegal immigrants) already here. But it’s great acknowledgment that this is an issue the administration seems willing to work on,” Jacobsen said.

California growers have been slow to use H-2A because of difficulty in getting workers in a timely fashion for perishable crops and because of the cost of worker housing growers must provide, he said.

HR 4760 would bolster immigration enforcement and include the use of E-verify (electronic verification of employment eligibility), fix DACA (Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals) and replace the H-2A guestworker program with a new category called H-2C. It’s supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation and WAFLA but is opposed by Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif.

H-2C includes dairy, mushroom farms and other sectors excluded from H-2A, but caps the number of workers at 410,000 while requiring illegal immigrants to return to their country of origin and apply to re-enter the U.S. as H-2C workers.

“Mandatory E-verify without any real fix for the existing workforce and a cap on H-2C would be devastating to agriculture,” Marsh said, adding that NCAE is working to fix that.

Previously, NCAE has said there’s an estimated 2 million seasonal ag workers in the U.S. and 500,000 year-round workers. With an estimated 50 to 70 percent of farm workers being illegal, and if they all left the 410,000 H-2C cap would result in a huge shortage.

Workers for California alone would use up the cap, Jacobsen said, adding it’s unlikely immigration reform will happen before the November congressional elections.

“California agriculture is still applying pressure. We believe Trump and the Republicans would like to deal with this in some manner,” he said.

Marsh said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., introduced a resolution that, if passed, would bring HR 4760 and three other immigration bills to the House floor for votes without committee passage.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League in Yakima, said he doubts there will be any votes on immigration bills or broad immigration legislation debate before the election. He said the president was stating the obvious in saying guestworkers are needed.

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