Agriculture’s unprecedented unity in support of the Senate’s comprehensive immigration legislation brings farmers and ranchers closer than they’ve been in decades to having a stable, secure and legal workforce, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The agriculture provisions of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) reflect a landmark agreement reached in mid-April by the United Farm Workers union and the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, a coalition of 60-plus organizations of which AFBF is a founding member.
Representing the AWC at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, emphasized that reform has been a long time coming.
“The agriculture provisions in this legislation represent our best chance in over a decade, or more, to solve the labor shortage in agriculture,” Conner said. “The program outlined in the bill includes two key components that AWC views as vital to meaningful reform-a blue card program for current experienced farm workers and a new agricultural visa program to meet future labor needs.”
The bill’s agriculture provisions are intended to ensure farmers and ranchers can maintain their experienced workforce that are in undocumented status and to replace the current guestworker program, H-2A, which most farmers consider unworkable.
Under the blue card program, experienced agricultural workers can obtain legal immigration status by satisfying criteria such as passing a background check, paying a fine and proving that applicable taxes have been paid. Blue Card workers would be required to continue to work in agriculture before having the opportunity to qualify for a green card.
In addition, the bill would establish a new visa program that allows agricultural employers to hire guest workers, either under contract or at will. Visa holders would be able to work in the U.S. under a three-year visa and work for any designated agricultural employer. The program would be administered by USDA.
The number of three-year visas would be capped at 112,333 per year; in year three, the total number of visas issued could not exceed 337,000. After five years, the cap for the number of visas would be determined annually by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The bill would establish 2016 wage rates for program participants in different categories: farm workers and laborers for crop, nursery and greenhouse, $9.64 per hour; graders and sorters, $9.84 per hour; dairy and livestock, $11.37 per hour; equipment operators, $11.87 per hour; wages for other occupational categories may be determined by the Secretary of Agriculture.
Working alongside the agricultural groups in developing the farm and ranch worker provisions were a handful of senators who AFBF President Bob Stallman recognized in a statement.
“We appreciate the tireless efforts of Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) to garner consensus and agreement by all parties on such a significant issue. The framework and objectives are a positive step toward achieving meaningful immigration reform,” he said.
In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has introduced the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772), which would, among other things, expand the use of E-verify, an Internet-based system to determine worker eligibility.
While emphasizing its commitment to the principles in the Senate bill, the AWC in a statement said the legislation represents an important first step in the House. The coalition will continue to serve as a resource to Chairman Goodlatte and other House members as the process moves forward.
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